Peddling Painful Politics
Donald T. Saposnek, PhD
© 2016 High Conflict Institute
Political conflict has been saturating the airwaves, the print media, and the social media. This is the peak of the 24/7 news cycle/election cycle/conflict cycle at its most intense. All eyes and ears are on Donald Trump and the cast of thousands (including other candidates, print and cable news reporters, political pundits, and all of our families, friends, and neighbors). Like traffic and the weather, this political circus has been a prolonged and hot topic for conversations. You can hardly speak to anyone without Trump coming up. The one good thing about this is that it creates a force that unites and bonds people together against a common enemy. But, the one bad thing about all this is that it unites only certain people together, and in a polarized way from other people, in a “tribal warfare” way, in a winner and loser way, in an all-good or all-bad sort of way. And, those are exactly the characteristics of a high-conflict personality, whether it be the characterization of a person, or of a culture. Yes, cultures, too, can have personalities, and this current political climate is intensely shaping ours into one of high conflict.
Just before the election of 2012, Bill Eddy and I wrote about the parallels between this political polarization and the similar dynamics in high conflict divorce, in our book, Splitting America: How Politicians, Super PACs and the News Media Mirror High Conflict Divorce. Since that writing, and during this current 2016 election cycle, most everything upon which we based our conclusions of danger ahead has come true— except, it is now on steroids!
The Trump Phenomenon
While all the other presidential candidates have their flaws, Donald Trump majors in these. All the candidates accuse each other of “being divisive,” but Trump surgically divides everyone into being either “terrific” and “great,” or “horrible” and “a disaster,” and “smart” or “stupid.” Persistently a bully, he deeply believes that if you get hit, you should hit back twice as hard, or else you may be seen as “weak.” Priding himself as a “winner” means that, in everything he does, there will be a loser, and he does not like to lose. This position disallows compromise or collaboration—most of what we need to do in a civilized society. And, within our society, which is very complex and laden with social problems that, for most of us, feel overwhelming, Trump’s followers seem to appreciate, cheer, and find great comfort in his unique ability to over-simplify complex social problems into all good or all bad, black or white, winner or loser, the very best or the very worst—“We’re going to rebuild (not merely improve) our military to be bigger and better (‘It’ll be huuuge!’), we’ll completely wipe out Obamacare (and replace it how, and with what??), and I will personally cancel and rip to shreds that horrible Iran deal (‘The absolutely worst deal ever made in the history of the world!’), and we’ll knock the s… out of Isis…and I’ll make Mexico pay for THE WALL…I’m going to make our country so great…I’ll bring huuuge numbers of jobs back…We’ll be WINNING so much, that you’ll get sick of winning…I’m strong and I’m smart and I’ll wipe out everything bad that is happening…and, by the way, All politicians are stupid…we need smart people in Washington…and I’m really smart!... I’ll eliminate the 19 trillion-dollar national debt in under two terms…Trust me, I’ll take care of you…I’ll keep you safe” (This is a common theme that domestic partners of abused women say to keep their power over their partner!) ... “There is nobody on the planet that respects women more than I do,” but… “Women who have abortions must be punished!”
Many people have an internal locus of control—they make decisions about their worth based upon an internal barometer of personal values and a sense of right and wrong. In contrast, Trump appears to have an external locus of control. He is hopelessly dependent on others to define who he is. If someone says he’s great, he feels great. If someone criticizes him, he reflexively attacks them, belittles them, and threatens them. Psychologically, this does three things for him: 1) He retains his belief that he is O.K. (i.e. not worthy of criticism); 2) He creates fear in those who might criticize him (decreasing his anxiety about not being O.K.); and 3) He publicly appears strong and powerful (a defense against deep insecurities). In fact, Trump seems to have few principles or values, except money and personal power. His “political” platform is all about Donald Trump. According to one news pundit, “It’s not what he says, but how he says it” that has increased his popularity in this presidential race. One CNN pundit said, “The only cause that Trump has is himself !” His appeal is all about his personality, not any substantive issues or realistic solutions to the country’s many, complex problems. His content-less interviews and narcissistic stump speeches are now legendary—self-recursive, stream-of-consciousness-talk about how many people love him, how many people attend his rallies, and his increasing popularity on Twitter (much like an insecure high school kid). When advised to tamp down his rhetoric and talk more substantively, Trump said, “My tone is going to change as soon as I finish the victory…But you don’t want me to change my tone, because then I’ll be boring, and you won’t watch me” (and there is some reality to that, since the news media is nourished by his outrageousness!). For Mr. Trump, it’s all about getting personal attention and adulation. In fact, David Gergen, presidential advisor to four sitting presidents, stated on CNN that Trump may not really want to become President, but may only want to prove that he could win (the primary). Since he does not like to lose, once in the race, he has to win! And, this powerful, self-defining motive drives him into showing some very dangerous, impulsive behaviors.
Words Matter and Have Consequences.
“Get’m outta here…I’d like to punch him in the face… "I love the old days," Trump said. "You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They'd be carried out on a stretcher, folks." At another rally, Trump told his supporters to "knock the crap out of" protesters if they threw tomatoes at him. "I will pay for the legal fees. I promise," he said. When asked about these sorts of utterances, Trump dismissed them and took little to no responsibility for the violence-engendering power of such words. There are also indirect incitements to violence coming from Trump supporters. Recently, a prominent radio host threatened to post the hotel name and the specific hotel rooms of any delegates at a brokered convention who defect from supporting Trump, and they promised to “visit” these delegates in their hotel rooms if they defect from Trump! (an implied threat of intimidation!).
“The economy is falling apart. It’s an awful time to invest in the stock market. If I am not elected, we’re going to have a massive recession. But, if I am elected, it won’t happen!” Aside from its blatant arrogance, this is a very dangerous utterance for a powerful, highly visible public figure to say…it can lead to a stock market panic, as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Such words, said at a time of deep national tensions and unrest, are potentially volatile.
In an interview with reporter Maureen Dowd, Trump justified his attacks on, and his demeaning of women, when he said, “What’s the problem, I attack more men than women!” While the theme of “attacking” is normal and natural for him, it is setting a model for American citizens, including children, to see hostility, power and aggression over others as desirable and admirable. He never apologizes, he self-justifies all his abhorrent behaviors, and he shows very little insight into himself and his impact on others (i.e. He doesn’t play well with others). He is politically incorrect, and his followers love that about him. In a civil society, there are implicit rules by which people agree to abide in order to be able to cooperate and get along with others. Once you cross that line past civility, it jeopardizes the community standards which are so needed for cooperative living amongst one another.
Our Need for Increased Intensity
There has been an increasing epidemic of extremeness in our society, in the form of statements, actions and events, as our society seems to be desensitizing to violence in all forms, and people now expect and perhaps need higher levels of intensity just to feel alive (witness the rise of gun use, extreme sports; violent videogames; violent high-action movies and TV; extreme, hate-filled, violence-engendering radio talk shows, etc.). And, this goes along with the TV news adage regarding programming coverage priorities: “If it bleeds, it leads.” This “need” for extreme intensity may be a root factor of the increased polarization of our politic appetite, as well. Author Pia Mellody once said “People often mistake intensity for intimacy”—perhaps this American pursuit of intensity is a perverted search for connection and closeness.
The present election cycle has manifested this dynamic well: Two previously highly unlikely, “outsider” candidates, who have the most imaginably extreme, opposite positions and values from one another about almost everything, have gained prominence (and could now be potentially electable): Donald Trump (a bombastic, arrogant billionaire with unreasoned and unreasonable positions aimed at increasing wealth) and Bernie Sanders (a self-proclaimed Socialist who intends to punish and heavily tax millionaires and billionaires in order to equalize America’s wealth).
The problem with unbridled intensity is that it promotes incivility and can easily result in violence, when it comes to politics. The only path to non-violence is for people (especially leaders) to be reasonable, actively discourage violence, use thoughtfulness and reflection rather than impulsivity, and behave responsively, not reactively. But, as Donald Trump would say, reasonableness is boring. And, indeed, it can be, unless you approach it with intellectual vigor and curiosity, in which case it can be an exciting, interesting, and constructive way to solve problems.
Enhancing and Sustaining Conflict by the Media
Even CNN, FOX, and MSNBC discussions of Trump’s words generate conflict worthy of TV and other media coverage…played over and over again, all day and all night long. A “high conflict person” generates conflict not only directly by his or her words, but indirectly, as well. For example, we tend to look for and expect consistency and integrity of words, values, and actions from our leaders; Trump provides inconsistency of words, values, and actions…leading to confusion over his meanings and intentions, and to polarization of his supporters and non-supporters. Once there is significant polarization (like “Tribal Warfare” in divorce—the dividing of families and friends), the resulting conflict begins to take on a life of its own, and as the conflict continues unbridled (and is stoked by air-time and the continual re-stimulation of the polarized, conflicted positions), it gets bigger and bigger, resulting in strong, polarized positions about the candidates and assumptions made about the issues that easily turn into factoids (statements which when asserted over and over again begin to be accepted as facts). Trump is a master at creating factoids, which are sustained by his supporters’ loyalty to his personality and charisma. Problem is, factoids are not facts!
While much of the discussion above has centered on Trump, the problem is larger than just him. The contribution of the media (both cable news stations and social media, like Twitter) is insidious…functioning in a hopeless paradox: The media cover every word out of the candidates’ mouths that engender conflict, including any contradictions to what they have said before (the “gotcha” moments), any inflammatory words, and any especially provocative, extreme or unrealistic statements, for the latter of which both Trump and Bernie Sanders (e.g. “free health care and free college for all”) are uniquely noted. Since Trump has blurted out the most statements in all of these categories, he has received the most media coverage. Ironically, many of the pundits on cable news networks have repeatedly talked about how their continual airing and discussions of the outrageous, conflict-engendering comments of the high-conflict candidates in the media fuels people to react in angry and sometimes violent ways, as people defend their candidate and attack the opponents; then, the pundits discuss how violence just seems to be increasing. It reminds me of the woman who says to the man, “Why are you so angry? He says “I’m not angry.” She then says, “But you really look angry.” He says, with a louder voice, “I’m not angry.” She says, “But you really sound angry.” He yells emphatically, “I’M NOT ANGRY.” She then says, “You really need to get some help about your anger!”
In sum, our government and our society are in dire need of leaders who are thoughtful and reasonable, who can communicate and collaborate with one another in measured, reflective ways that create the context for getting things done and supporting the American people. Instead, we have created and enabled a situation of gridlock for decision-making, and of dividing and turning people against each other. We are genuinely at a turning-point and an important choice-point in our governmental process and our country’s history. We need to come back to reason and effective functioning. In the interest of that, I encourage you to embrace the warning message that Bill Eddy and I wrote in Splitting America, that, if we don’t respond soon, and appropriately, and elect reasonable and functional leaders, we will quickly head down a path of increased conflict and violence, civil unrest (the dysfunctional kind), and general moral deterioration.
In particular, before you decide who to vote for in the upcoming elections, please seriously rate each candidate on our scorecard, and deeply consider the conclusions that you draw. Thank you:
Donald T. Saposnek, Ph.D., is a clinical-child psychologist and family therapist in practice since 1971, a child custody mediator, trainer and consultant since 1977, and is a founding board member of the Academy of Professional Family Mediators and Editor of The Professional Family Mediator. He has published extensively in the professional literature on child custody and child psychology and is on the editorial boards of the Family Court Review and the Conflict Resolution Quarterly journals. He is the author of Mediating Child Custody Disputes: A Strategic Approach, and co-author of Splitting America: How Politicians, Super Pacs and the News Media Mirror High Conflict Divorce. He has been teaching on the psychology faculty at the University of California, Santa Cruz since 1977, and is Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University School of Law, Straus Institute for Dispute Resolution. His website is: www.mediate.com/dsaposnek.