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The Battle Between Clinton and Trump is a Modern Morality Play

Trump has a deep-seated knack for playing to people's moral intuition and plans to exploit this skill all the way to the White House. The question remains: does Clinton?

It’s a cliche of US elections that candidates appeal to more extreme flanks of their bases to win their parties’ primaries and then hastily sand down the edges of their positions to please the center’s undecided voters. Yet, like so much else in 2016, the received wisdom has been flung out the window.

Pundits were surprised by the progressive, populist-tinged vim of Hillary Clinton’s speech accepting the Democratic nomination on Thursday. Just as many—Quartz included—were astonished by Donald Trump’s refusal to moderate his authoritarian tone at the Republican convention address a week earlier. It was perhaps their single-biggest chance of the election to make their messages expansive enough to win over undecided moderates. Neither seemed to care.

Hunkered down in their ideological corners, Clinton and Trump could have been talking about two wholly different countries.

And in a way, they were. Their convention themes described visions of the American moral order that light up the brains of different types of voters, appealing to discrete layers of the US electorate. Both candidates went for intensity over breadth. However, of the two, Trump exhibited a much deeper and more strategic understanding of human nature, as he had throughout the primaries.

A moral political order

Jonathan Haidt, a moral political psychologist at New York University’s Stern School of Business, offers important insights into the mechanisms at play here. In his book, Righteous Mind, Haidt shows how our responses to political debate are almost pure intuition; quick-firing moral reflexes that our brains overlay with rationales after the fact.

The other vital insight involves what Haidt describes as six types of intuitions—or, as he calls them, moral foundations: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/tyranny, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. These combine to form the unconscious attitudes that animate each of us, to form our sense of morality.

This doesn’t tend to happen in a vacuum; different swaths of American society construct morality with radically different proportions of these. Urban liberal communities that thrive on commerce tend to respond strongly to only the first two of these, care/harm and fairness/cheating (and, to some extent, liberts/tyranny). Democratic voters, therefore, generally prioritize openness and tolerance and tend to be suspicious of authority. Conservative morality, which stems more from agrarian roots, typically engages all of the moral foundations, but with a heavy emphasis on the latter three of loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation.

The Democratic national convention, replete with themes like “A lifetime of fighting for women and families” and “Stronger together,” clearly played heavily to the classic liberal moral foundations.

In her speech, Clinton absorbed the economic justice agenda of her primaries competitor, Bernie Sanders, as though he were less a vanquished rival than a vanishing twin. She championed equality—protecting people’s “rights” got 12 specific mentions—pushing down hard on the “fairness” moral foundation.

“I believe that our economy isn’t working the way it should because our democracy isn’t working the way it should,” she said. “It’s wrong to take tax breaks with one hand and give out pink slips with the other.”

Given her background working with children and the disadvantaged, it probably won’t surprise anyone that Clinton also played to the other biggie of liberal morality, caring for the suffering, oppressed, and downtrodden. What was more remarkable was Clinton’s restraint in delving into policy specifics, focusing instead on whipping up traditional liberal moral righteousness. That said, her convention performance hinted that she understands the need to broaden her moral message. She showed a deference to authority in praising the military, the president and vice president, and police officers. (Convention speakers like Khizr Khan, the father of a slain Muslim US solider, bolstered this theme even more.)

Banking on outrage

Trump is a little less stereotypically conservative than Clinton is liberal. Throughout the primaries, Donald Trump eschewed the richer palette of morality typical of conservatives. His supporters respond strongly to loyalty and authority (and, to some degree, sanctity).

In his conception of moral order, America is diseased by chaos, violence and economic torpor. Clinton and, to a lesser extent, president Barack Obama are responsible. They have shredded the rule of law, sold out workers to big business, China and Mexico, and created ISIL—betraying faithful, law-abiding American people, in short.

Though pundits largely expected Trump to use the convention to broaden his appeal to voters, the event was instead a sweeping tableau of America’s descent into immorality. Each night was themed around Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America great again” (subbing in “safe,” “work,” “first,” and “one” for “great”). Throughout the convention, Trump proxies railed against Clinton’s supposed betrayal of America in her handling of the Benghazi embassy attack, while the tragic deaths of people killed by unauthorized immigrants was cited to illustrate the mortal threats citizens now face. Another pet theme was how the undermining of police by subversive groups (the implication, usually, being Black Lives Matter activists) is letting crime and chaos flourish. Meanwhile, political correctness forbids reasonable people from criticizing the ethnic and religious groups who are killing Americans. Tolerance has made America unsafe, unpatriotic, and (obviously) un-great.

In his convention speech, Trump cranked up the authoritarianism and stoked anxiety about being betrayed and abandoned by liberals.

“I am the Law and Order candidate,” said Trump (he capitalized it in his written speech (pdf)). Clinton’s legacy, he said, is “death, destruction, terrorism and weakness.”

Thanks to his understanding of the US governmental system that is “rigged against our citizens,” he “alone can fix it,” Trump said. He mentioned “law” or “lawlessness” 18 times; while “terror/terrorism” got 14 mentions, “fail” got nine. Trump said “taxes”—a standard Republican hobbyhorse—only six times.

Trump’s choice to stay the course he set during the primaries makes sense. Had he diluted his rhetoric to appeal to a broader base, he would have risked losing the moral outrage that drives his supporters—the people who wear “Hillary for prison shirts” and enjoy chanting “lock her up!”

As many have observed, the facts backing up Trump’s narratives are pretty thin on the ground. However, to people whose sense of morality is grounded heavily in respect for authority and loyalty to a certain in-group, Trump’s diagnosis makes intuitive sense. Anyone baffled that Trump’s supporters ignore the spuriousness of his arguments are very likely people whose moral configurations don’t incline them to favor authority and loyalty much in the first place.

This is probably part of why the media—which, lets be honest, is staffed disproportionately by liberals—keeps being surprised by Trump’s electoral triumphs or is prone to dismissing Trump’s rhetoric as fear-mongering (Quartz included).

It is that, but it’s more than that too. What looks to liberals like scare tactics are also affirmations of a construction of morality that is hugely important to many tens of millions of Americans. There might be more factually coherent ways of appealing to that morality, but right now, Trump’s the only show in town.

Who wins?

Trump obviously has a deep-seated knack for playing to people’s moral intuition and plans to exploit this skill all the way to the White House. The question remains: does Clinton?

Haidt sees several paths she and the Democrats could take. In an interview with Thomas Edsall, Haidt said that, for one, they should appeal to people’s moral sense of fairness by repeatedly characterizing him as a cheater and a con man. While Clinton’s speech hit this theme for a few moments, Haidt recommended a must more aggressive approach—for instance, a “long parade” of “former customers and partners” who were shafted by Trump. Another tactic would be to contrast Trump’s crassness with the sacredness Americans attach to their civic symbols, such as the Constitution and the founding fathers. While the section of Clinton’s speech describing the nation’s founding seems obliquely to condemn Trump, the critique—if it is one—is far too subtle. Finally, Haidt proposes focusing on how Trump’s enthusiasm for Putin brings shame on the country. Again, Clinton didn’t take this on directly.

If Haidt is right, Clinton missed a valuable prime-time opportunity to mount a moral—and not, as Democrats prefer to do, factual—assault on Trump. Still, her speech’s pinnacle was when she challenged his authority:

“Imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis. A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons,” said Clinton, going on to imply he was a “little man” motivated by fear and pride.

Maybe her attack on Trump’s moral character and her emphasis on progressive values, as opposed to dry policies, signal Clinton’s grasp of the moral psychology underlying the challenge she faces. Then again, in the art of masterminding human nature, Trump already has a decades-long head start.

(Image via Flickr user Gage Skidmore)