The continued rise of Donald Trump and the steady growth of his support even in the face of mounting legal challenges and controversies have surprised even the most seasoned political analysts. While there are many explanations for his rise in popularity, there is one, highlighted by George Monbiot for The Guardian, that is often overlooked: Trump is the king of external values.
Psychologists often categorize values into two main types: intrinsic and extrinsic. Individuals with strong intrinsic values tend toward empathy, intimacy, and self-acceptance. They are open to challenges, interested in universal rights and equality, and advocate for the well-being of others and the environment.
On the other hand, those at the outer end of the spectrum are attracted to prestige, status, image, fame, power and wealth. Motivated by the prospect of individual rewards and praise, they are more inclined to objectify and exploit others, behave aggressively, and reject social and environmental concerns.
Trump as an example of extrinsic values
Donald Trump represents exactly the external values, visible in different aspects of his public persona. From the gold-lettered tower that bears his name to his blatant overstatement of wealth, Trump's constant highlighting of "winners" and "losers" and his reported cheating at golf, he epitomizes the extreme objectification of women, including his own daughter.
His disdain for public services, human rights and environmental protection, along with his enduring discontent and anger, sets him apart as a walking monument to outsider values. However, it has been proven that such people, although many see their "bad" sides, still admire the strength of personality of such persons, which in this case is Trump.
We are not born with our values. They are shaped by the cues and responses we receive from other people and by the prevailing customs of our society.They are also shaped by the political environment in which we live.
If people live in a cruel and overwhelming political system, they tend to normalize and internalize it, absorbing its dominant demands and turning them into extrinsic values. This, in turn, allows an even more cruel and invasive political system to develop.
If, by contrast, people live in a country where no one becomes poor, where social norms are characterized by kindness, empathy, community, and freedom from want and fear, their values are likely to shift towards a fundamental end.
The Evolution of American Values
Since Ronald Reagan's presidency, which reinforced social divisions into "winners" and "losers," the United States has become a breeding ground for foreign values.
Even later democratic leaders, who accepted neoliberal principles, failed to reverse this trend. Even during the time of megaliberal Obama, this division in society was very evident. And that is fertile ground for politicians like Donald Trump.
The American Dream, centered on the accumulation of wealth, conspicuous consumption, and avoidance of other people's needs and demands, was the dominant cultural narrative. Toxic myths about success and failure prevail, reinforcing the idea that wealth is the ultimate goal, regardless of how it is acquired.
Currently, these social divisions have reached their peak with a very large difference between the richest and the poorest. There is no middle class as it was in the golden sixties, seventies and eighties. The marketing of insecurities, especially about physical appearance, and the production of unfulfilled desires dig holes in our psyche that we might try to fill with money, fame or power.
Advertising, social commercialization and the rise of consumerism reinforce these narratives, creating the perfect incubator for extrinsic values. The culture's focus on individualizing blame reaches extreme levels, as evidenced by proposed laws punishing individuals for "disturbing" or causing "offensive" odors while they sleep.
Under a criminal justice bill now going through parliament, people caught sleeping can be jailed or fined up to $3,000 if they are deemed to be a "nuisance" or cause "damage".
The blame game and the criminalization of poverty
Blaming and criminalizing individuals for their own poverty, which is often caused by government policy, is an example of a society on the wrong track.
The culture of blame contributes to polarization and divisions in society. When society values status, money, power and dominance, frustration inevitably results. In a culture that glorifies winners, not everyone can be number one.
The more economic elites accumulate, the more others have to lose. The blame for the resulting disappointments is shifted from the victors to those who advocate for a kinder world where wealth is distributed and communities and the planet are protected.
Such persons are called weak and are rejected from society. Those who have developed a strong set of extrinsic values will vote for the person who represents them, the person who has what they want. Trump could win again. If so, his victory will be due not only to the racial resentment of aging whites, or his weaponization of culture wars or algorithms and echo chambers, important as these factors are. It will also be the result of values that are so deeply embedded that we forget they are there.