People are angry, there’s no doubt about that.
They are filled with a certain type of rage, which has led to a combative few months in the political primaries. Many voters who want change have found a potential leader who has helped mobilize their anger.
Both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have rallied a group of disillusioned citizens, many of whom were perceived as on the fringe. For Trump, his battle cry of "Make America Great Again" has resonated with right-leaning voters who felt disenfranchised by GOP politicos who no longer represent the real social and cultural beliefs of middle American blue collar conservatives. Bernie Sanders too has brought together a group of disillusioned young progressives looking to move the political needle away from helping the rich get richer and actually dealing with real U.S. income inequality.
They’ve tapped into a universal emotion and used that to propel their political journey. And political rage has been the lynchpin of many political debates. The question is, now that these candidates have a captivated base of angry people, what next? How do they lead with anger as the tying bind?
Political analyst Stuart Rothenberg sees rage as one of the most important propellants of the Trump and Sanders campaigns. The two nominees, he says, have spent "a lot of time echoing the anger and the rage that the movement feels." They’ve figured out how to tap the emotions these followers felt were neglected.
But they are now reaching the end of the first phase; Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee and more reports indicate that Sanders will likely lose to Clinton. And it’s helpful to look back on why this was so successful. They have capitalized on the collective emotion and shown themselves to be worthy and unique political opponents. According to psychologist and researcher Heidi Grant Halvorson (who's also a Fast Company contributor), where both Trump and Sanders excel is at "creating a sense of us." Which, conversely, creates a very distinct "them." "Our brains instantly categorize ‘us’ and ‘them,’" says Halvorson. And it’s people like those two candidates who are able to harness that natural capacity and make a movement.
But what happens psychologically is more than just an amorphous movement. "When you create a group, as a leader, based on a common anger," says Halvorson, "you really get a ton of influence." And this influence activates "threat mechanics" in the brains of those listening. So when Trump sends an uninformed tweet citing an inflated number of white people killed by black people, those he’s engaging are detecting and dealing with a threat he set off. Halvorson adds, "unfortunately, when people’s brains are in a state of threat they don’t think as clearly."
Indeed, this natural animalistic response of hearing a threat and responding with a digital (or physical) mob induces cognitive disrepair. "They get in a flight mode," says Halvorson, which leads to reduced memory capacity and impaired reason. And this gives people like Trump a distinct advantage. He’s stoking a group, making them angry, and though they aren’t thinking clearly they have a very clear and strong sense of identity.
Of course, politicians have done this for years—nearly every successful political fight has been helped by creating a common enemy. But candidates like Trump haven’t just tapped into a common anger, says Halvorson, "they’ve actively tossed gasoline on a fire." People, she adds, are behaving like they’re at war.
We’re now at a critical juncture. The nominees have tapped into a common psychology that led them to now. But Sanders is in a place where he still has a captivated and disillusioned base, but it’s becoming more and more unlikely he’ll clinch the nomination.
"They spend a lot of time whipping up the anger and confirming the anger," says Rothenberg. "The next question is what kind of leadership are you looking for?" For Sanders, many people see it as a time to realize the power he has and use it to unify. If he is truly out of the race, the best way to go forward is to make sure his issues are still heard but ensure that the common enemy isn’t the fractured Democratic base.
"Bernie Sanders has to spend some time connecting those dots between his followers and Hillary Clinton," says Rothenberg. To do that, he adds, is to "talk about the common enemy." For the Democrats, that's obviously Trump. Yet that’s easier said than done. While Halvorson agrees that the best way for Sanders’s camp to move forward is to realign the common enemy it’s created, psychologically that may be hard.
"When human beings get like this they are not super rational," she says. "They kind of lose sight of what the goal is." She explains that power has the tendency to make people become more narrowly focused. She fears that for Sanders, his rapid rise has caused him to focus too much on his own agenda. Perhaps "he’s lost focus of the big picture," Halvorson wonders.
Trump on the other hand is in a very different situation. He has a loud base of angry people, and this helped him clinch the nomination. But now he has to unify those on the right who aren’t on his side. Rothenberg sees his VP pick as one way to lead his campaign forward. He should pick a running mate who "doesn’t reflect his style." And then figure out a way to communicate to his base the importance of this other nominee.
Both Trump and Sanders need to tweak their campaigns to figure out how they can translate the rage the've cultivated into an exacting political strategy. Rothenberg sees the anger dissipating for Sanders. If the race continues to trend toward Clinton, as the DNC nears he's going to have to figure out a way to gracefully exit while assuaging his supporters. It may take time for the younger, more ardent Sanders followers to rally behind Clinton, but Rothenberg sees this as an inevitability.
Trump, on the other hand, can continue doing what he's doing but it may not have the same effect. The base that brought him to this moment is set, but now he has to speak to the other Republicans—the ones who have a different kind of anger.
Ultimately, this presidential race has been propelled by the idea of a common enemy. Given this strategy's success it's unlikely to change. The real question is: now that a base of rage is set, which leader will create the most compelling common enemy and how will they take it forward?