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Financial and Emotional Suffering Is Pushing White Americans Towards Trump

Donald Trump appeals to white Americans who are suffering, argues research psychologist Buckwalter. (photo courtesy Shutterstock)

Donald Trump appeals to White Americans who are suffering, argues research psychologist Buckwalter. (photo courtesy Shutterstock)

(Another in our continuing series of articles by participants in this fall’s Techonomy 2016 conference.)

The emergence of Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate has buffaloed many, from classroom to barroom. But one research project from University of Massachusetts, Amherst by PhD Candidate Matthew MacWilliams has provided sound insight into the mindset of the droves turning out for Trump Rallies.

In two independent and well-researched samples, MacWilliams found solid correlations between a sympathy for authoritarianism (a strong desire for order and an intense fear of outsiders) and support for Trump. What’s more, the previous work of Marc Hetherington (Vanderbilt University) and Jonathan Weiler (U of North Carolina) (Authoritarianism and Polarization in American Politics, Cambridge University Press, 2009) has found a clear trend over 12 years (from 1992 to 2004) in which those who score high on authoritarianism are drifting toward the Republican Party.

This has happened as the party shifted from being defined by fiscal conservatism to social conservatism. Authoritarians had previously been split across parties. But their migration towards Republicans has been generally unrecognized until the emergence of Trump. His ‘strong man’ persona and his apparent willingness to use force to maintain order and keep perceived external threats at bay all appeal to authoritarians.

I work in research psychology, examining the mind and our environment for a better understanding of why we do what we do. When we started working on the psychology of finance at Payoff.com, we first looked for long-term psychological traits that predicted financial behaviors, or our hard-wired ‘financial personality’. And while we did find that a large percentage of a person’s financial activity relates to their personality profile, our work consistently found a robust factor that I had never seen, nor has been previously reported. It centered on fear.

‘Factor Fear’, as we labeled it, is a combination of existential fear associated with an inability to meet financial obligations, denial of the implications of increasingly problematic financial behaviors, and fear that others will find out about one’s precarious financial life. The abundant associated feelings of shame seem to drive increasing isolation.

Such financial stress is seldom discussed in the press. More often, we hear about the financial problems of Middle Class America: stagnant income, lack of savings, and voluminous debt. There’s occasionally recognition of the relentless pressure that the marketing and financial service industries apply on us to keep up with the Joneses, all with 0% interest (for a very short period of time). This confluence of economic and emotional factors creates the perfect storm for new pathologies. But there are virtually no studies on the psychological consequences of financial distress.

We hypothesize that Factor Fear reflects similar symptoms to trauma-induced Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is widely accepted that traumatic stress results in a range of cognitive, emotional, relational, physiological and psychological dysfunctions.

After extensive work to quantify financial stress using a validated  scale widely used to diagnose PTSD, we identified a related condition which we call Acute Financial Stress (AFS). In a statistically-significant nationwide study of 2,041 participants conducted in April 2015, we discovered the stunning fact that more than 23% of Americans over 17 met the criteria. It results in cognitive, emotional and behavioral/relational disorders.

More recently, we have verified the link between financial stress and psychological symptoms and have also found that the key financial factor associated with a cascade of symptoms is the inability to consistently pay all one’s monthly bills. It’s not a matter of how much income or debt one has, but rather that an imbalance between income and outlay causes one relentless stress and leads to a downward spiral. The resulting avoidance and denial, along with nightmares, sleep disturbances, hypervigilance and relational difficulties follow for more than 20% of American adults. For many, hopelessness and suicidal ideation start to take hold.

In a recent nationwide study conducted by my team and being analyzed now, we identified an additional cognitive factor that becomes evident when financial stress really kicks in. This is called an external Locus of Control (eLOC), a cognitive pattern that results when an individual senses a lack of control over their environment. This cognitive distortion, I will argue, provides a logical link between financial distress and support for Trump.

Consider the pressure you might feel being underwater financially, with no viable solution even conceivable. When your best efforts to avoid and deny the reality start to break down, leading to a sense of isolation, anxiety and fear, what’s next? Our research suggests it’s often a process of externalization, in which blame for one’s problems, as well as the solution, becomes externalized, further disempowering the individual. Now it’s no longer something to deny or even try to avoid, because in some sense, it’s no longer even your problem. It’s the damn banks’ fault, the corrupt government’s fault, the fucking ex’s fault, the asshole driver who rear-ended you and started the whole chain of events that has left you under water. Maybe even Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton’s fault. Whatever.

And as this process of externalization takes hold, the reality of the externalized threat isn’t even all that important. With enough fervor, even a mythical external threat can rule your life. This is the foundation for the cognitive distortion that develops subsequent to unresolved financial stress, and the related avoidance, denial and isolation.

Unmoored, we spiral toward a world of black and white, responding to coded language that appears to acknowledge the challenges in our lives. Conspiracies become more than welcome. We are primed to succumb to scammers or confabulators, and are susceptible to almost anyone who appears to ‘get it’. It is this stress-driven externalization, specifically in White middle class Americans with their innate, frequently unrecognized sense of entitlement, that drives authoritarianism. Enter Mr. Trump.

Here’s something that explains this further. One of the more remarkable studies I’ve seen recently was written by Anne Case and Angus Deaton from Princeton and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The authors cautiously, concisely and comprehensively assess data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), death records, and ancillary databases including those on human mortality, for international comparisons. Their analysis poses a startling challenge to what we thought we knew: that life expectancy was increasing for middle-aged White Americans.

From 1999 to 2013, Case and Deaton report that instead of the decline in mortality rates we have all baked into our thinking and planning, the trend has been reversed. Perhaps even more surprising is that it doesn’t reverse for middle-aged American Blacks or Hispanics. And this turnabout did not occur in other industrialized countries. This affects a lot of people: if the mortality rate had stayed at 1998 levels for Whites aged 45-54, we would be seeing roughly 7,000 fewer deaths per year.

The plot thickens dramatically when we segment the data by cause of death. The frequency of poisoning by an overdose of drugs and/or alcohol spikes upwards from less than five poisonings per 100,000 per year, to 30 annual deaths more recently. This is largely the consequence of the opioid epidemic.

Another study worth mentioning, published in Alcohol and Alcoholism in 2013 by J. Bor and colleagues, focuses on alcohol abuse and the great Recession of 2008-09. People aged 25-34 and 55-59 – the groups the study found had an increase in binge drinking, are arguably among the most sensitive to the financial stress of unemployment. They are young people trying to establish themselves in the job market and pre-retirement people seeking to continue a full income.

After overdoses, the next largest rise in cause of mortality is suicide. After that is liver disease, almost always caused by alcohol abuse. Finally, diabetes and lung cancer – which aren’t really changing. So, we have a murderers row for the hopelessly angry: overdoses, suicide and alcoholism.

One final analysis from the CDC study by Anne Case and Angus Deaton: the researchers found that deaths from overdoses, suicides and alcoholism increase significantly since 1999 across all ages, from 18 to 65. I would argue something is driving this death wish: a loss of hope, anger or a desire for the quickest of fixes.

So, we see a stunning reversal in mortality rates, all because of self-directed abuse. And we also externalize, constructing straw men for every threat we see and some we imagine.

A recent study by Gallup economist Jonathan Rothwell has been widely reported to disprove the idea that Trump’s followers have a common core of economic distress. While the study does find that Trump loyalists have similar or even slightly higher levels of household income than non-Hispanic White Republicans who do not support Trump, and are more likely to be employed, a careful read of the study in fact supports the idea that Trump’s followers are currently facing economic stress.

First it should be noted that no data on debt levels and on the ability of Trump’s followers to meet their financial obligations was reported, so it is not possible to consider the most likely cause of their financial stress. Trump supporters in this study are more likely to come from geographic zones with higher White middle-age mortality rates, meaning they die earlier, have higher levels of chronic health problems including obesity, and also show less intergenerational mobility than regions where there are fewer Trump supporters. These factors are often associated with economic stress. Rothwell himself concludes “material circumstances caused by economic shocks manifest themselves in depression, dissapointment (sic), and ill-health, and those are the true underlying causes.” This is an apt summary of a cascade from financial stress to psychological and cognitive dysfunction to the focus on an external locus of control (eLOC) and impulse towards authoritarianism.

While the similarities between authoritarianism and eLOC seem obvious, a review of the literature finds that the last article studying an association between the two was published in 1968. Nearly 50 years later, please consider this one working hypothesis for how financial downsizing of the White middle-class may be the primary reason so many people respond to the very loud message of Donald Trump.

Having become isolated or despondent over one’s perceived powerlessness, many Americans are literally outsourcing the job of solving the problem. But an externalized Locus of Control is not only socially destructive on a political level, it’s profoundly unhealthy for the individual who is seeking answers for his or her troubles elsewhere.

Living with an internal locus of control turns out to be nothing short of brain health for the 21st Century. While the underlying physiology will likely be studied for decades, the process of learning self-control, responsibility, and a sense of purpose has long been known to improve functioning and life satisfaction. Many of the basic tenets of psychotherapy, particularly as embodied in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), are systematic exercises to demythologize external sources of control and to empower the individual to take control of their thoughts, emotions and behaviors. In the resulting state of mind, we live with gratitude, curiosity and openness: pretty much all the stuff that gets laughed at during a Trump rally.

By contrast, externalized thinking could be a recipe for a national turn towards fascism, but right now, it’s a central part of the decreasing life expectancy we already see in this group. This mindset goes beyond shouting down protesters at a Trump Rally. This problem speaks to the depth of pain and dysfunction affecting a huge segment of our population. Sadly, it will outlive the popularity of Mr. Trump.

Galen Buckwalter is a research psychologist and chief science officer at Payoff.com, a financial wellness company applying science, psychology and technology to help members achieve financial well-being. 

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