From the first minutes of his campaign through today Donald Trump and his supporters have started or fanned rumors and conspiracy theories about immigrants – murderers and rapists….M 13…. caravans funded by Soros…. taking our jobs. What does Trump know about how these work? A lot, if you apply Pascal Boyer’s analysis of collective behavior.
Evolutionary anthropologist Pascal Boyer (author of Minds Make Society) presents a model of collective behavior which helps to explain this unending stream of provocations. Boyer draws upon evidence found in small tribal cultures and advanced states.
Trump understood long ago that a politician can mobilize followers by constantly arousing the deeply embedded human desire for tight, reciprocating ties. The designating of others as outsiders is part of recruitment and boundary making. Stereotyping and constant threat detection become standard. To a coalition member, creating or passing along rumors and conspiracy theories does not require you to actually believe in them. We do a lot of things together in earnest without deep belief in their overt explanation. The member basically wants to experience a fierce re-confirmation of the coalition, not to win a debate.
Trump constantly makes up moral transgressors and their victims. Moralizing is a form of group enforcement.
Boyer cites two general habits of thinking. One involves what we retain in memory. Most people typically retain in memory receiving and passing on threats (“The lettuce may be carrying a botulism”), even if very improbable, more than receiving and passing on simply negative information (“Often the produce there is not very fresh”).
The second involves popular perceptions about economics: (1) The economy is zero-sum game. (2) The world is full of people who want a free ride. And, (3) bargaining prowess provides a huge advantage. Trump has been suggesting that free loaders include pretty much the entire immigrant community. The Democratic party encourages free loading. Only he can fix immigration, using his bargaining skills. See him drive hard bargains with Central American countries! Any minute how, another lightning-like tweet will remind us how he is on the job.
This political style of his makes it difficult for Trump to act like a compromiser, or to show compassion, such as letting Dorian survivors stay for a while. That would confuse his followers. He has no interest in general reform of immigration law, as that will require compromise.