KTU Researcher from the US: It Is Too Late to Change the Opinion of Donald Trump’s Voters

University | 2016-07-28

“The power of the people in democracy ceases to exist when they are easily manipulated to believe promises or ideas will be of benefit to them, without critical thought”, says Thomas A. Bryer, chief researcher and a Fulbright Core Scholar at Kaunas University of Technology (KTU). He insists that when talking about Trump, we should discuss not the means of defeating him, but the ways of giving voice to the people whom Trump claims to be representing.

Although Bryer says that it is impossible to predict the outcome of the United States’ presidential election in November, he is convinced that the battle will be fierce.

“Much has happened and will continue to happen that will influence the opinions of the American voter. Violence against police officers, and police shooting of American black citizens might continue; new terror attacks might occur somewhere in the world. Trump is selling himself as the “law and order” candidate, and he has argued throughout the campaign that he will focus on security—physical, military, economic. This is a powerful message that is attractive for citizens who feel threatened in some way”, says Bryer, who is also an associate professor at the University of Central Florida, Director of Center for Public and Nonprofit Management.

In his opinion, the main problem of Donald Trump’s opponent Hillary Clinton is that most people do not feel passionate about and even do not like her.

He also delivers a message for those Lithuanians, who claim that we do not need to care about American presidential elections: the decisions of the president of the US can affect lives of Lithuanian citizens in many important ways.

The full interview with Thomas A. Bryer – below.

Would President Donald Trump be good or bad news for the US? For Europe / world?

Donald Trump does not have any experience working in government, as an elected official or in any other capacity. As such, we cannot say definitively what he will actually do or try to do if he is elected.

For instance, will his policies improve access to health care for Americans? Will his policies help create jobs or retrain workers for existing jobs? Will his policies prevent violence between racial or ethnic groups? Will his policies facilitate peaceful borders in the United States and in Europe? Will his policies dismantle terrorist networks?

Unfortunately, as a candidate, Trump has not been very specific about specific policies, and so it is difficult if not impossible to judge potential success. He might renegotiate trade agreements that might create opportunity for the American worker to find better employment opportunities. He might reconsider commitment to NATO and support of, for instance, Baltic States in the case of aggression from Russia. He might advocate for more restrictive immigration policies. He might make it easier for Americans to buy and carry guns.

I have my personal opinion about all of these issues, and I will enjoy opportunities for debate about his ideas, as we all should enjoy such opportunities for free and open debate. Reconsideration of NATO commitments is, in my view, dangerous for Lithuania, for Europe, and for the United States. On the other hand, there might be legitimate opportunity with such a president as Trump to look critically at how NATO serves potentially to both protect and to provoke. Rarely is it a bad thing to ask critical questions; if, however, he were to pursue a policy without critical analysis and open debate within the global community, the implications can indeed be quite severe.

Why should Lithuanians be interested in presidential elections of the US? What impact Trump as a president may have on our country?

Lithuanians should be interested in elections throughout the world. The President of the United States has the opportunity to shape commitments and agreements with countries around the world. Trade agreements can affect the economy of the United States, thus determining, for instance, the ability for Americans to travel internationally including to Lithuania for holidays. Trade agreements can also influence the economies within Europe, which can provide more or less opportunity for Lithuanians to find employment. Decisions made about refugees in the United States can alter the pressures applied to accept or reject refugees in Europe and within Lithuania. Of course, the commitments made to military support and financial support of NATO, and commitments to NATO members, can have significant implication for Lithuania. The possibility of Russian aggression can easily be imagined, perhaps even more if NATO becomes weakened. Thus, from an economic, military, and social security perspective, the President of the United States can in very real ways affect policies and people within Lithuania.

The most popular strategy of Trump’s campaign is to blame Hillary on everything. Indeed, Americans seem to think that they are faced with two bad choices, and need to vote for the “less bad”. What is your opinion on this?

It is true that many American voters are not passionate about and even do not like Hillary Clinton. Generally speaking, voters will not vote for someone because they dislike somebody else. There is usually something that attracts the voter to the other candidate.

Many American voters feel threatened. They feel threatened by economic insecurity, the lack of jobs, wages that have not increased over several years, crime in communities, racial tensions, and visible shifts in social values, as seen in cases of homosexual marriage and rights for transgendered people. Such changes and risks, perceived or real, make a candidate like Donald Trump very attractive. He represents a very different leadership style that promises he will be tough and an advocate in all negotiations for every man and woman who feels beaten.

Many Americans feel beaten for one reason or another. Hillary Clinton suggests she will be a president who continues these changes and helps prepare society for the pain that comes from any social, economic, or other change, but a brighter future is on the horizon. Trump might be seen as the candidate who will stop the change, put out the fires, and protect those who feel beaten from new turmoil and uncertainty.

Trump seems to have found a way to appeal to masses. It seems that those masses do not listen to any of the arguments; they seem oblivious to facts and thrive on emotion. How can he be defeated?

The assumption in the question is that Trump should be defeated. The more important question is based on the second sentence is that the masses are not fully informed and are driven more by emotion. Indeed, the founders of the United States argued that the people directly cannot be trusted to advocate for their own interests because humans are driven more by emotion, which often makes it difficult to know or understand their interests. This is why we have a representative system of democracy; the representatives are intended to be more reasoned and rational and considered in their decision-making. The more important question then is how can we help prepare citizens for reasoned participation? To help them become more self- and other-aware so that when they do make a decision about voting, they do so in a thoughtful and reflective manner? This is a bigger issue for the sustainability of democratic societies. The power of the people in democracy ceases to exist when they are easily manipulated to believe promises or ideas will be of benefit to them, without critical thought. If one believes this is what Trump is doing, that he is manipulating the people with false hope based on artificial fear, it is quite honestly too late to change the view of the people who are so manipulated. Change in educational systems, the role of media in society, and in other areas, needs to occur over years and decades to realize the true potential of an informed, deliberative citizenry.

That said, if there is a goal to defeat Trump, the strategy is probably not to change the minds of voters who support him. The strategy would be to create enough doubt that those citizens choose to not vote while ensuring citizens who are doubtful of but willing to accept Hillary Clinton will vote. The lack of passion for Clinton is the biggest threat to her campaign; in a very negative campaign, turnout may be lower. Low turnout will probably benefit Trump who seems to have a more passionate base of support.

There is also an opinion that whoever is the president, the democracy and the system of government of the US is such that he or she cannot make any significant damage. What is your opinion?

The American system of government is designed so that there is a clear separation and division of powers. Within the national or federal government, the legislature has certain responsibilities the most important of which is to approve a budget. The legislature must also approve any appointees to high government position, and they have the responsibility to declare war if such situation arises. The judicial branch of government has the responsibility to make judgments about government programs that might be in violation of the constitution of the United States. Then there are 50 state governments and thousands of local governments. The system is created based on the idea of checks and balances; if the president reaches too far or tries to implement a policy or program that is not popular or in the interests of the country, the legislature, the court, or any of the state or local governments has some opportunity to at least mitigate against any harm caused by the policy or program.

However, the president remains powerful. Power is informal. What the president says and how he or she says it can influence the mood in the country and the values that are supported. Power is also formal. Treaties, trade agreements, military commitments, lawsuits—these are real tools of government that shape policies and programs on a global level, and decisions about them, to a certain extent, can happen without any other branch of government. As such, damage and benefit can be quite substantial.

Lately we see the rise of populist politicians around the world. What is the reason for this?

Fear and uncertainty. Changes in society, in individual and collective power, in freedom—these changes challenge “traditional” or at least “comfortable” lifestyles, or they challenge lifestyles from a time that is long ago and probably not to return. Change is never easy—in family, in organizations, and most especially in society. There are real threats facing our communities. We cannot ignore them. At the same time, reactionary responses are often like locking oneself in a basement while the upper floors of the house are burning. Maybe we put out the fires or they burn themselves out over time, but the structure that remains will never look like it did before. There must be a plan to rebuild within the context of new realities.

What role do populist politicians play in society? Why are they needed?

Populist politicians awaken us collectively and within our governments to legitimate fears and anxieties of citizens. Without these politicians, we might never know the emotional concerns of a vast percentage of people in our communities. They bring voice to those who are often shutout of political discourse. This is why the object should not be to defeat candidates such as these; the object should be to recognize these citizens and learn how we can keep them involved and engaged meaningfully in decisions that affect their lives.

Brexit showed that people are not willing to research all the available information. Is there any means to make people, who are not interested in facts, to hear them?

Yes, but what those means are will be different for every society and every community within each society. American author Mark Twain famously wrote, there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. What is factual can change from one day to the next. Never will we as a society or set of societies agree to a single set of facts. It is more important to develop means for all citizens to participate in dialogue and conversation, equally, without bias towards the more highly educated, the wealthier, or the more well networked. Research has shown that when citizens participate in open dialogue and deliberation, they become both more informed and more willing to accept the different views and values of others. Thus, once a decision like Brexit is made, we might disagree with the final decision but we will accept and understand the reason why the decision was made.

We never should say “voters are stupid.” Voters make decisions based on their lived experience and their personal reflection. Giving them opportunity to speak and have deliberation openly with others creates new experience that will shape future decisions. “Facts” will never be accepted as universal.

There are voices that Brexit, Trump’s candidacy are the signals of the end of the global economy, the world is becoming more fractured. Is this really what is happening?

Something is happening. There are clear indications that citizens are not satisfied with the status quo. Fear and anxiety are widespread, and once taken hold, such emptions spread rapidly. It is natural human response that when there is fear and when there is change, we should close the doors and ensure our safety first. Then we can crack the window and begin to adjust to whatever new reality exists. Global economies are interconnected. There might be shifts in power relationships and trade agreements, but when goods and people can move rapidly and at relative low cost, it is not conceivable that the American economy will not influence the European economy, and vice versa. Similarly, there is more awareness about different countries, thanks to the internet and social media. Perhaps we do not trust each other all of the time, but we are every year learning more about each other. Maybe we begin to look inward for a short while, but I do not expect we will become fractured beyond repair.

Why should people be interested in politics? What is more important: to be aware of the processes on national or on international level?

Politics are the processes and politicians are the people who shape our freedoms, opportunities, rights, and responsibilities. Failure to be interested in politics is failure to take ownership of one’s own life. In this, it is a choice. Do we let others make decisions about and for us without our involvement or even awareness, or do we take some control? Interest is important locally, nationally, and internationally. The future of the world, with movement of people, goods, and information, is a global future. Even the most closed societies must have relationships beyond their borders, as no country has unlimited supply of resources to care for its people. Further, and this is an important truth, a relative small percentage of citizens around the world will ever be interested let alone active in politics. For those who are, their influence is potentially significant and with deep meaning. We should aspire to be one of the few but to do so responsibly.

Why should people study political sciences? Can they really make any impact on the processes?

The study of political sciences makes a person part of a select group: the highly informed, with relationships and knowledge, to shape not only their own small part of the world but to have influence globally. The potential for leadership exists, which can be exercised at the very local level or at the international level. Impact is possible but only with preparation.

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