Against the New Phrenology: De-Pathologizing Trumpism

This is a guest post by Dan Boscov-Ellen. Dan is a Ph.Dprofile. student in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research and a Visiting Instructor in Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute. His dissertation research involves exploring the political-philosophical implications of capitalist ecological crisis.

One of the most persistent refrains of the US Presidential election has been that of liberal incredulity at the idiocy of Trump voters. Depending on the current status of Nate Silver’s election forecasts, this tends to manifest either as amusement (perhaps chuckling at a Daily Show interview of deluded rally attendees or a screening of Idiocracy), or as disgust and horror (perhaps soberly staring into one’s craft IPA when the debate watch party gets too real). How, liberals wonder, could anyone vote for Cheeto™ Hitler?


But of course they do not wonder too hard – it is obvious to most liberals that Trump voters are simply ignorant and stupid, an apparent truism of which comedians, political scientists, neuroscientists, and cognitive psychologists constantly assure us. Everyone knows that Trump supporters are less well-informed than liberals – if only they read the New York Times and listened to NPR instead of watching Fox News! But the deeper problem, allegedly, is that Trump voters are simply not intelligent enough to realize how ignorant they are. Psychologist David Dunning explains that

[t]he knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task — and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at the task. This includes political judgment.

According to neuroscientist Bobby Azarian, this Dunning-Kruger effect “helps explain why even nonpartisan experts — like military generals and Independent former Mayor of New York/billionaire CEO Michael Bloomberg — as well as some respected Republican politicians, don’t seem to be able to say anything that can change the minds of loyal Trump followers.”

At base, then, it is the Trump voters’ fundamental and impenetrable stupidity that causes them to ignore the experts – highly credentialed neoclassical economists, experienced military and intelligence figures, beneficent billionaires, esteemed members of the mainstream American political establishment and independent press, and Neil Degrasse Tyson – who obviously know far better than the plebian masses. Indeed, many liberals secretly believe it might really be better if the experts just ran things and we revoked the cretins’ right to vote.


Trump supporters’ stupidity is not explained merely by a lack of information or education. There is, scientists tell us, something fundamentally different about, and apparently wrong with, their brains:

Science has unequivocally shown that the conservative brain has an exaggerated fear response when faced with stimuli that may be perceived as threatening. A classic study in the journal Science found that conservatives have a stronger physiological reaction to startling noises and graphic images compared to liberals. A brain-imaging study published in Current Biology revealed that those who lean right politically tend to have a larger amygdala — a structure that is electrically active during states of fear and anxiety. And a 2014 fMRI study found that it is possible to predict whether someone is a liberal or conservative simply by looking at their brain activity while they view threatening or disgusting images, such as mutilated bodies… So how does this help explain the unbridled loyalty of Trump supporters? These brain responses are automatic, and not influenced by logic or reason.

Spirit, in other words, is a bone after all. And the phrenology of Trumpism has deeply worrying implications for politics. For example,

[I]n a study with American students, scientists found that making mortality salient increased support for extreme military interventions by American forces that could kill thousands of civilians overseas. Interestingly, the effect was present only in conservatives, which can likely be attributed to their heightened fear response.

Liberals, of course, would never condone such policies, because they have reason and New York Magazine, both of which tell them to vote for Clinton.


Such facile explanations comfortably conform to what Emmett Rensin has called “the smug style in American liberalism”– the easy idea that these hicks are simply too stupid to understand that they are being conned (it is not, however, a uniquely American phenomenon – it was also in full display, for example, after the Brexit vote).


Trump is, of course, indeed a cynical con man through and through. But the new phrenology is a dangerous dogma. Let us set aside the obvious normative issues, ignoring the bald elitism, the barely latent classism, and the ultimately anti-democratic sentiment upon which it thrives; the basic problem with the prevalent liberal line is that it allows liberals to maintain a complacent sense of moral and intellectual superiority (on this view, these are the same), despite the fact that in practice liberalism is hardly less irrational and barbaric than the flat-earth ideologies to which it condescends.

I will spare the reader the full litany of such barbarisms and irrationalities. My point here is simply that the pathologizing of populism (and the glib equivalizing of left and right populisms) helps to ensure that liberals, their pride in reading The Economist notwithstanding, need not actually understand all that much about what Noam Chomsky calls “the real world.” It obviates any need to ask deeper (and uncomfortable) questions about the appeal of right-wing populist discourses.

Explaining Trump’s popularity by reference to brute intelligence, or to such apparent givens as racism (itself often reduced to the racists’ neurological dysfunction), serves a precise ideological function. It allows liberals to paper over the fact that, as Nancy Fraser rightly argues, “(neo)liberalism and fascism are not really two different things, one of which is good and the other bad, but two deeply interconnected faces of the capitalist world system… bound together in a perverse symbiosis.” They then need not consider why the historically unprecedented empire they support has always found it necessary to brutally suppress movements for justice and self-determination at home and around the globe (and continues to do so), nor recognize the reactionary fallout of this history as such. They can happily ignore the fact that the Northern capitalist prosperity they enjoy and which they claim to wish to “universalize” through modest social programs, “development,” and “aid” in fact requires deep structural inequality as its condition of possibility (and that its generalization, were it indeed economically possible, would immediately render a rapidly deteriorating biosphere completely uninhabitable for most of the world’s remaining living beings). By refusing to acknowledge the actual, endogenous inequality and violence of the liberal order, they can thus write off the ways in which these in turn further perpetuate racism (which itself developed to make sense of the chasm between liberalism’s ideology of equality and the realities of slavery in early capitalism), fuel migration and offshoring, give succor to fundamentalisms of all stripes, and so on.

While telling the story of the present is far beyond the scope of this piece, the basic principle is simple and obvious enough. The liberal world is not simply unconscionable in its gross injustices and absurdities; precisely because it inevitably generates them, it is innately unstable and ultimately unsustainable. It necessarily produces the forces of its own dissolution. Trump (and his European brethren) are symptomatic rather than merely exceptional; as such, they are harbingers of one possible future. By obstinately refusing to confront this reality, liberals make that future likelier every day.



What, then, makes liberals so stupid that they can endorse a slow-motion apocalypse as the best of all possible worlds, fancying themselves pragmatic realists while reviling the inescapable results of their own intellectual, cultural, and economic hegemony? Perhaps there is something dysfunctional in their genes that makes them able to not only tolerate but actually admire Jonathan Chait and Bill Maher? And perhaps this congenital elitism blinds them to their own irrationalism and ignorance (and, indeed, to the ways in which the correct perception of this elitism by those it ridicules itself fuels the fires of right-wing populism)?

In a recent piece in The Guardian, Gary Younge reprints a conversation among Trump supporters who put forward just such a proposition:

“If she gets elected …” says Judy Campbell and then shakes her head where the end of her sentence might be. “People can’t seriously be thinking about voting for that woman. I mean what in the world … What can they be thinking?”

“A lot of what he’s done and said is indefensible,” says Jim Arnold. “But when you compare it to what she’s done they’re not comparable.”

“It makes me worry about the intelligence of some of these people,” says Margaret Niccum.

“Well you can’t fix that,” says Arnold.

The parallel, I hope, makes it sufficiently clear that those who turn to genetics for an understanding of American politics are looking in the wrong place. The work of the historian Barbara Fields may suggest a more fruitful framework. In a classic essay entitled “Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States of America,” Fields takes to task not only those who understand race as a biological reality and thus as an explanation for racial oppression, but those who would “attribute biological disability – or its functional equivalent – to those demonstrated to be racists” (117). The problem with both of these views is that “race is neither biology nor an idea absorbed into biology by Lamarckian inheritance. It is ideology, and ideologies do not have lives of their own” (117).

On Fields’ view, if we wanted to combat the racism of Trump voters (or, for that matter, Obama and Clinton voters, who are only marginally less racist in their views and who endorse the many structurally racist policies of their liberal leaders), we would first need to understand the underlying dynamics that this racism serves to rationalize and reinforce, and the mechanisms of their reinforcement. (Note, by the way, that seeking to understand how bigotry and xenophobia gain traction is not the same thing as excusing them – indeed, one might argue that the left knows better than liberals do how to deal with the Stormfront set of Trump supporters).

This alternative diagnosis yields a different political conclusion. It is true that ideologies are often so powerful that “no amount of experimental observation can disprove them” (Fields 106) – something obvious to anyone who tries to argue with supporters of Trump (and many supporters of Clinton and Obama). However, it is also important to remember that ideologies are neither hereditary nor free-standing. Fields argues that if race still lives on today despite being scientifically discredited,

it can do so only because we continue to create and re-create it in our social life, continue to verify it, and thus continue to need a social vocabulary that will allow us to make sense, not of what our ancestors did then, but of what we ourselves choose to do now (118). 

Such ideologies will remain, Fields argues, “so long as the most radical goal of the political opposition remains the reallocation of unemployment, poverty and injustice rather than their abolition” (118) – in other words, so long as left alternatives are effectively squashed, sabotaged, or coopted by the priests of a status quo whose reproduction requires that certain lives count for less. Fields’ view, by contrast to that of the biological reductivists, forces us to ask more interesting questions about a social order that both depends upon and generates such ideologies. But liberals cannot earnestly ask such questions, because their own deep and abiding complicity in structural racism, mass murder, capitalist exploitation, and catastrophic ecocide precludes an honest assessment.



4 thoughts on “Against the New Phrenology: De-Pathologizing Trumpism

  1. Pingback: Against the New Phrenology: De-Pathologizing Trumpism – Redvince's Weblog

  2. Pingback: my thoughts on the election (or, “dwellers in different zones”) – Brief and Wondrous

  3. Pingback: When White Men Rule The World | The Disorder Of Things

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