How Trump’s High Level of Emotion Attracts and Repels Followers Simultaneously

How Trump’s High Level of Emotion Attracts and Repels Followers Simultaneously
by Thomas J. Auflick, MA, LMHCA

In his article, “Why is Donald Trump so Insulting in the Debates?” Dr. Robert Mather illuminates the emotional process related to Donald Trump’s debate tactics. From a psychological perspective, Dr. Mather details the emotional arousal incited by Trump that hinders the cognitive process of his fellow debate participants. Trump fires incendiary insults at his opponents that short circuits their intellectual abilities and drags the debate into a dogfight off political issues and into a chaotic emotional realm. On the grand stage of his campaign, Mr. Trump operates with precision to play skillfully on the temperament of the political psyche making his stymied opponents look weak while he stands strong. He spins this emotion-charged rhetoric onto the public in order to garner his following in a process that Dr. Mather describes as an “emotional contagion.” Against all odds, punditry, media and traditional political processes, the Trump campaign has garnered an emotionally charged base of loyal followers and at the same time creating a passionate opposition.

In my work as a couple’s counselor, I utilize the research of Dr. John Gottman to educate my clients. Dr. Mather describes “working memory capacity” as a spectrum of our consciousness that changes when affected by arousal. When working with couples, I educate them on physiologically heightened states or what Gottman also describes as diffuse physiological arousal (DPA). We know DPA, as an excited emotional state, elevates our vital signs and changes the neurochemistry in our brains to disrupt analytical processes, or our ability to think straight. When our heart rate elevates to over 100 beats per minute (bpm), adrenalin is released and we regress into a more primitive state of thinking. In these highly charged emotional states, we may not even hear or process the words spoken by others. Simple brain science tells us that DPA moves us from using the large mammalian brain (cerebral cortex) to the small lizard brain (limbic cortex). When we are charged in a DPA state, we operate on a basic emotional level and become susceptible to “emotional contagion” and “behavior confirmation,” as described by Dr. Mather where emotions are transferred to others and escalated to absurd levels.

Our emotions provide the sweetness and bitterness of life. They give us meaning to our logical selves and protect us from the dangers that surround us. Evolution has given us the counterbalance to our emotional selves by allowing the development of our cerebral cortex that truly makes us unique and separate from one another by defining our individual personalities. What draws us together is the empathetic nature we all share, meaning we all know how emotions affect one another, and we relate to each other on this basic level. When I counsel couples, I teach mindfulness and relaxation in order to calm physiological arousal, allow vital signs to relax, and provide cognition for understanding and rational processing of their individual perspectives. Through counseling interventions, I help the big brain trump the little brain.

Often we gain support most easily through tactics of emotional persuasion outlined in the “Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion” as described by Dr. Mather. Trump’s tactics operate through emotional coercion that put his opponents off balance and draw his supporters more closely to his position of strength. His practice in debates and speech is both inflammatory and infectious, yet we learn and resolve nothing analytically. We come to a place of disconnection intellectually and connection emotionally. The little brain dictates our feelings and leaves our intellect behind. In this process, people are both attracted and repelled at the same time.

The 2016 United States presidential campaign demonstrates a process gathering strength from an internal combustible emotional state that feeds upon itself. From a psychological perspective, the effect of Trump’s campaign presents an emotional gravitational pull that infects people with similar feelings and attracts those who are already in that state. Donald Trump masterfully disrupts emotional stability to gather cohesion and simultaneously conflict with a strong opposition infused with outrage toward that his tactics. Being able to inspire such enthusiasm presents as a great strength to gathering support, but this leaves many questioning the Trump phenomena. In order for everyone to make sure they actually hear and not just feel we might just take a moment to breathe, check our heart rate to see if it’s below 100 bpm, and then, do our best to separate the emotion from the message or, at least, understand that the emotion is the message. By all means, we should make sure we all use the big brain in this process.  


This is a commentary on the Skeptic Ink article "WHY IS DONALD TRUMP SO INSULTING IN THE DEBATES?" You can read the full article: