The World Weekly talks to journalist and best-selling historian Rick Shenkman, whose latest book may help explain Donald Trump’s extraordinary presidential campaign.
A s soon as Donald Trump came down the escalator at Trump Tower and started spouting about Mexican drug addicts and rapists, I thought wow, this guy’s pushing our stone-age buttons,” says Rick Shenkman. “This guy’s campaign is going to take off.”
If so, he was one of the few. Seventeen people, including four senators and nine current or former governors, entered the race to become the Republican nominee for this year’s US presidential election - one of the strongest fields for many years. The day after Mr. Trump threw his hat into the ring, the New York Times asked itself how he could possibly win. “We are stumped. And we really tried,” was its response.
The property tycoon and reality television star, best-known for hosting ‘The Apprentice’, was seen as too inexperienced, gaffe-prone, un-Republican, vulgar and insulting to lead the party of Abraham Lincoln. As recently as late March, he appeared to have overstepped the mark after calling for women who have had abortions to be punished.
But last week the Trumpernaut blasted the final two obstacles from its path and set its sights on the White House. Jeb Bush’s vast coffers, John Kasich’s experience, Marco Rubio’s youthful charisma and Ted Cruz’s well-oiled electoral machine all proved no match for Mr. Trump’s raw emotional appeal. Mr. Shenkman’s latest book, ‘Political Animals’, helps explain why.
Mr. Shenkman argues that although historical precedent often seems the soundest guide to analysing modern politics, a scientific understanding of human impulses can sometimes provide deeper insights. In a whistle-stop tour of psychological, neurological and anthropological studies, he contends that humans still rely on political instincts that evolved in the Stone Age (specifically, the Pleistocene era) but are now well past their sell-by-date.
“Modern politics is so different from anything experienced in the Pleistocene - when instincts were baked into human DNA - that we frequently sabotage ourselves, upending our democracy in ways none of us intended,” he writes. The problem isn’t that voters are stupid, but that there’s “a mismatch between the brain we inherited from the Stone Age, when mankind lived in small communities, and the brain we need to deal with the challenges we face in a democratic society consisting of millions of people”.
‘Political Animals’ was completed months before Mr. Trump launched his campaign and does not mention him, but in the midst of the US election campaign it is almost impossible to read without the billionaire in mind. “In the Pleistocene it was helpful to know if someone came from different stock,” writes Mr. Shenkman. “Almost certainly someone who did posed a potential danger.” This instinct, seemingly irrelevant in modern multiethnic societies, remains ripe for exploitation by politicians, who “have learned that they can win over many voters simply by playing on a bond based on a common ancestry”.
Mr. Trump proposes a ban on foreign Muslims entering the US following the San Bernardino shooting.
Despite making him one of the world’s most divisive figures, Mr. Trump’s strident nativism has attracted millions of (mainly white) voters. His trademark promise, to build a wall along the US-Mexican border and make Mexico foot the bill, is met with cheers at every rally; a pledge to shut Muslims out “until our country’s representatives can figure out what the hell is going on” was roundly applauded in December.
Mr. Shenkman warns that politicians can sometimes whip “their own kind up into an ethnocentric frenzy… which, in turn, can lead to physical attacks on outsiders”. Violent scenes at several Trump rallies and an attack last August on a homeless Hispanic man by two caucasian men - who, following their arrests, quoted from Mr. Trump’s speeches in their defence - seem to confirm this.
We can’t continue to allow China to rape our country… It’s the greatest theft in the history of the world.”
Another parallel is Mr. Trump’s ability to tap into frustration and anger. Rooted in a deeply pessimistic view of the US’ sliding economic and international prowess, his slogan - “make America great again” - has resonated with blue-collar workers scarred by globalisation and the financial crisis. “Studies show that anger moves voters,” writes Mr. Shenkman. “It increases their commitment to a candidate they are already predisposed to like while it simultaneously stops them from thinking. Angry voters go with their gut.”
Unsurprisingly, given his background as a historian, Mr. Shenkman stresses that human behaviour is moulded by cultural and social pressures as well as inherited characteristics. He also suggests we can short-circuit evolved biases by training ourselves to think critically and with open minds. Nevertheless, at times ‘Political Animals’ feels overly deterministic, as the Washington Post notes in its review.
Mr. Trump is hardly the first politician to harness xenophobia and resentment, nor the only one to do so this primary season, and any account of his meteoric rise must also include his rare, if unexpected, political talents. “Charismatic, tactically astute, charming at times and ruthless, Mr. Trump is a far more formidable politician than almost anyone had expected,” conceded The Economist last week. “His outrages have kept print- and broadcast-media attention focused on him; with nearly 8 million followers on Twitter and a flair for pithy invective, he rules on social media, too.”
Mr. Shenkman thinks the tycoon will still fall short in November, but tells The World Weekly “we’re one big terrorist attack away from President Trump”.
No doubt he has in mind the disturbing tale of Charles Vansant, a student mauled to death by a shark in New Jersey in July 1916, with which ‘Political Animals’ begins. Over the next fortnight sharks killed three more people, sending the state into panic and damaging its economy. A granular breakdown of voting patterns in the state by the political scientist Christopher Achen has revealed that voters punished President Woodrow Wilson for the attacks, consciously or otherwise, in a presidential election four months later.
“That is scary,” writes Mr. Shenkman. “No rational voter should have let what happened in July affect his choice in November. Leaders should be held responsible only for what they can reasonably be held responsible for.” If a crisis breaks out between now and November, however, voters could turn against the Democrat establishment en masse.
Lessons from history
Mr. Shenkman’s concern about American democracy goes back four decades. After pulling out of Harvard grad school in 1978 he turned to television, rising to be managing editor at Seattle’s CBS affiliate and winning an Emmy Award for his investigative journalism. But on the side he wrote books that sought to puncture myths about American history, and in 2001 founded the History News Network, which he now edits full-time. Among other things, the website aims to expose politicians who misrepresent history.
In 2008, he was so infuriated by surveys showing that a majority of US voters who supported the Iraq War believed Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks that he dashed off ‘Just How Stupid Are We? Facing the truth about the American voter’ in just three months.
“I thought this is insane, this is appalling,” Mr. Shenkman says. “The Iraq War was the single biggest issue of our time and people didn’t know the basic facts. Our democracy was on fire and no one was paying attention.” He hoped the “polemic” would provoke a self-critique among US voters. “It didn’t work but eight years later Donald Trump has done my job for me.”
I ask whether Bernie Sanders, the self-declared socialist pushing Hillary Clinton much further than expected in the Democratic primaries, has exploited the same instincts as Mr. Trump. “He’s pushing our stone-age buttons in the sense that we’re feeling vulnerable and open to radical change,” says Mr. Shenkman. “But his appeal is to hope, not anger. We’re always better when politicians appeal to hope because hope opens our minds. When anger grips a nation, the wheels of democracy grind to a halt.”