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Donald Trump’s message of fear may mobilize Americans to vote (but not necessarily for him)

- July 25, 2016
Donald Trump speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. (Jonathan Ernst/Thursday)

Donald Trump delivered a dark speech at the finale of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, redolent of the dangers facing Americans, presumably from terrorists, immigrants and lawless citizens. Trump seemed to reject the conventional political wisdom, embodied in Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” theme in 1984 and Barack Obama’s “Yes, We Can” slogan in 2008, that presidential candidates should offer voters a sense of hope.

But research by social and political psychologists indicates that Trump’s gamble on the mobilizing power of fear isn’t crazy. True, psychologists identify fear as a “withdrawal” emotion. By increasing the sense of risk, it can lead us to hunker down and fail to take action, including something like voting.

But political psychologists also find that people who are frightened rely less on habit (such as voting for candidates from their own party) and spend more time informing themselves about the dangerous world around them.

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Our research finds that recent frightening events, such as terrorism and racial tensions, actually do mobilize people. As part of a study of emotions and political participation, we embedded an experiment in an online survey of Americans this month. In this experiment, we randomly assigned respondents to read one of several prompts intended to provoke fear, or to read no such prompt.

For example, some participants read alerts from experts about the declining effectiveness of antibiotics or the likelihood of a devastating nuclear weapon detonation. Others were simply asked to think about an event that made them fearful — either one reported in the news or one related to the U.S. presidential campaign.

We then measured respondents’ willingness to get involved in politics in a number of ways: vote in the November election, give money to a campaign, put bumper stickers on their car, attend a rally, volunteer for a candidate, talk to other voters about candidates.

Compared to people who read no fear prompt, all the other groups said they were more likely to participate. And people who were asked to write a paragraph about something in the presidential campaign that made them fearful expressed both the highest levels of fear and the greatest willingness to vote.

As might be expected, when asked to write about something in the news or campaign that made them fearful, people most often mentioned terrorism, racial tensions and violence against and by the police. For example, one respondent wrote that Americans are seeing “the beginning of race war.” Other possible threats, such as the Zika virus, were mentioned by only a few.

Our study, then, indicates that current events are making people fearful and fear is making them more willing to get involved in politics. So far, this is good news for Trump.

The not-so-good news is that quite a few of our respondents seemed most worried about Trump himself — about what his election would mean for minorities, about violence at some of his rallies, and about what they saw as the destabilizing effects of a Trump presidency on international security. One respondent wrote simply: “Donald Trump becoming president is a scary thing.”

Of course, some respondents wrote about Hillary Clinton, mentioning her support for the Black Lives Matter movement or her recent brush with the FBI. But of the two, Trump is clearly the candidate who trades on fear.

The reactions point to the challenge for candidates, such as Trump, who seek to elicit fear. When voters see Trump as the fix for the problems that scare them, his strategy wins. When they see Trump himself as frightening, it backfires.

Susan Stokes is the John S. Saden Professor of Political Science at Yale University. S. Erdem Aytac is assistant professor of political science at Koc University in Istanbul.