Throughout American history we’ve had politicians who stir up controversy during their campaigns: Bernie Sanders, Pat Buchanan, Joe McCarthy and now Donald Trump, to name just a few. These candidates are what one of our guests calls “high-conflict politicians.” What is the attraction some voters have for these candidates? Why are they so loyal to them? And what is the political climate that brings them to the fore? We discuss these issues with our guests who look at the politics and the psychology of high-conflict candidates.
Bill Eddy, president of the High Conflict Institute and author of, Trump Bubbles: the dramatic rise and fall of high-conflict politicians
Mark Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University in Ohio
Lauren A. Wright, PhD, political scientist and author of the book On Behalf of the President: Presidential spouses and White House communications strategy today
Links for more info:
- Cedarville University Center for Political Studies
Trump Bubbles and High Conflict Personality:
Gary Price: Every once in a while, you may come across someone whose emotions give them a knack for starting arguments. These people never take the blame for their actions and may even turn on those they’re close to who disagree with them. These are just a few of the multiple destructive behaviors that Bill Eddy would classify as characteristics of a “high-conflict personality.” As president of the High Conflict Institute, Eddy has spend the past fifteen years studying and working with high-conflict people, as well as helping their partners and bosses through situations that arise from these relationships. But what exactly is an HCP, or high-conflict person?
Bill Eddy: High conflict people are people who have, really, a narrow pattern of behavior that repeats a lot. They have a lot of “all or nothing” thinking. They see people as all good, people as all bad; they often have intense and unmanaged emotions so they get distracted by these emotions and they have a hard time staying focused on problem solving. They have extreme behavior or threats of extreme behavior but most of all they’re preoccupied with blaming others and they can’t look at themselves. And this pattern of behavior gets them into relationships, into romantic relationships, workplace relationships, legal relationships that then blow up.
Price: Eddy is also the author of the book Trump Bubbles: The dramatic rise and fall of high-conflict politicians, in which he discusses HCP’s who have both been in office or are running for office. These “bubbles” occur when emotion trumps thinking in politics…
Eddy: I looked in this book back at history, I got several other personalities that were apparent high-conflict politicians and they had this rise and fall pattern, just like a bubble. So that’s where this came from. Emotions trump thinking and the emotions rise – that’s when the bubble rises – and then they overreach, reality sets in and the bubble bursts. And it’s not usually until they do some damage that people go, “Oh, my goodness! I never thought this person would do such a thing.” And it’s predictable if they have this pattern of behavior.
Price: But how do these high-conflict people gain power in the first place? Well, certain circumstances definitely give them a leg-up in obtaining both the love and support of the people who vote for them…
Eddy: It seems to be an emotional aspect, and it’s maybe part of our human nature, part of our DNA that we like to follow strong leaders. And especially when we think it’s a time of danger and crisis and change, we’re kind of looking for “What should we do? Things are complicated. Life is complicated.” And so a leader that can make things really simple is very seductive. So you’ve got people that are kind of hungry for direction. Then you have a system of communicating with them, a broadcast system. So you have an emotional media widespread system, that’s the second ingredient. And the third ingredient is you have a very high-conflict personality who’s willing to manipulate the media message so that it manipulates the vulnerability.
Price: These instances make it easier to sway a crowd in your favor. There are many people who have been high-conflict that haven’t made it into presidential office, like multiple third-party candidates and Pat Buchanan, but there are others who have been very successful in these conditions. Depending on the current situation of the country, voters look for different characteristics, says Mark Smith, director of the Center for Political Studies at Cedarville University…
Mark Smith: It seems like right now people are gravitating toward strong presentations, strong presences. So someone who presents themselves in a very robust way and a very, almost combative way, I think for many voters that feels authentic. In other words voters, if they feel angry, they want a politician to have some of that edge to them as well and I think they’re gravitating toward that. If you look at the last election cycle we were in, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump really emerged as the final two Republican candidates and they both had a pretty hard edge, when you look at their presentation. If you look at the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders has a pretty hard edge to his presentation, and Mrs. Clinton can as well. So it’s a different era that we’re in right now. You know this isn’t the 1980s where people were looking for sunny optimism. This is a different world.
Price: It certainly is a different world, even looking back at just eight years ago. President Obama has a rather cool demeanor about him rather than this “hard edge” we look for now. However, these hard edges make it very difficult for current candidates to be likeable among the majority of people…
Smith: One of the biggest predictors of electoral success, especially at the presidential level, is someone you feel like you can connect with and someone who you feel you’d like to actually sit down and have a dinner with or have a beer with as people say. That’s the kind of person you’d like to vote for. And so you’re not really acting based on their characteristics to lead, you’re not really acting based on their ideas, you’re reacting to whether or not you feel comfortable with them.
Price: Comfort isn’t the only way we choose our ideal candidate. According to Eddy, biology, specifically the biology of our brain, affects our either conservative or liberal point-of-view…
Eddy: Some people seem to have a brain that interprets things as more fearful than other people. The amygdala is kind of the smoke alarm in the brain that’s triggered by danger and tells you, “Drop everything and run!” or “Drop everything and fight!” A third of the population seems to have this fear bias, so (they’re) more easily hooked by things that look and sound fearful. On the other hand, there’s a lot of people who are born with more of a novelty bias, and so seeking new experiences, new people, things that are new may be exciting. Looking at it politically, you often have conservatives – and there’s some research that’s been done – that show a larger right amygdala for people who identify as very conservative in a research study that was done in England. So they do interpret things as more dangerous. And then they found that the people identified as very liberal had a larger part of the left hemisphere which is more the novelty seeking, balancing conflicting ideas, and excited about that.
Price: Our current candidates seem to follow these to a T. While Hilary’s speeches tend to focus on policy ideas and explaining and analyzing them, Donald Trump’s speeches appeal to peoples’ emotions, especially anger and the love between him and his voters. He speaks in conclusions that are so compelling, that our brain skips right over thinking and analyzing, to just reacting – which probably helped him in his success as a real estate developer and businessman. While some of the things he says empower his supporters, others are offended by the comments he makes about minorities. They are beginning to see this bubble for what it really is…
Eddy: That’s the beginning of the bursting of a trump bubble too, is when people start seeing, yes, there are these problems and while most people defend them, there usually are people that start going, “Wait a minute, that’s too much.” And so we are seeing some of the especially Republican leaders who are openly saying, you know, “I can’t go this far,” or “I can’t go with him.” Even some of them dropping out of the Republican Party, registering as independents because they’re just not going to be part of this.
Price: And that’s when US vs. THEM really comes into play. This tactic, better known as “splitting”, is extremely popular in politics. It keeps supporters fiercely loyal, defensive of their views and their leader, and ready to act against anyone who disagrees with them. Political scientist and author of the book On Behalf of the President: Presidential spouses and White House communications strategy today, Lauren A. Wright, Ph. D, explains why and how this works…
Lauren Wright: When people have a common enemy sometimes they can unite more easily. But if the interests are more clearly defined for people and it’s articulated what’s at stake, and there’s an element of fear added, then that all contributes to a more simple message where people can understand it and rally around it.
Price: Because of today’s media coverage of elections, we can easily make up our minds about candidates without having to make up our mind at all. Facial expression and tone of voice can be absorbed by our brain, causing us to mirror the candidate’s emotions, often unconsciously. This was the case in the first ever-televised presidential debate in 1960…
Wright: There’s that famous Kennedy-Nixon debate that people always go back to where some people listened to it on the radio and they thought Nixon won, and some people watched it on TV and they thought Kennedy won. And political experts at the time attributed that to the fact that Kennedy looked really relaxed and in control, and Nixon was uncomfortable and shifting and sweating. So, absolutely, it can make a difference.
Price: This unconscious absorption of expression is what makes it easy for high-conflict personalities in politics to spread their anger to voters as well as establish a loving relationship between them even though they’ve never met. Whether you’re dealing with the high-conflict person themself or someone who just supports them, Eddy suggests you use EAR (ear) statements to keep them calm in conversation…
Eddy: EAR stands for “empathy, attention and respect.” So when you’re talking with someone who’s upset you can calm them with empathy, attention and respect and say, “You know, I can see how hard it is, and I know how important this is to you and I’ll pay attention to your concerns. And I respect your efforts.” And a lot of this is tone of voice.
Price: Bill Eddy discusses high-conflict personalities and trump bubbles, with their predictable rise-and-fall patterns, in further detail in his book Trump Bubbles, available on unhookedbooks.com. You can also check out, highconflictinstitute.com for more information on high-conflict people. You can find out more about Mark Smith on his faculty profile at cedarville.edu/cps. For more information on Lauren Wright, you can find her website at laurenawright.com. Wright invites you to read her book about first ladies titled, On Behalf of the President. For more information about all of our guests, log on to our site at Viewpoints online.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. I’m Gary Price.