People care about what others think of them more than they’d like to believe. We all like to think of ourselves as autonomous decision-makers. So, when asked why we do what we do, we usually respond by saying we do what is best for ourselves.
It ends up, however, that our belief in our own autonomy is greatly overstated. In the end, we are social creatures and because of this, President Trump’s equivocation in damning white supremacy is unacceptable.
A few years back, a group of psychologists conducted an experiment where they placed promotional hangers on people’s front doors providing a number of reasons why it was good to save energy. Some door hangers said you should save energy because it will save you money; others said that you should save energy because it was good for the environment, and others said you should save energy because your neighbors save energy.
When asked which of these statements would likely influence their behavior, individuals generally put the fact that neighbors do it last. Indeed, most people say that whether their neighbors do something will have no effect on their decisions. You can guess the result of the psychologists’ door hanger experiment. The group that saved the most energy was the group that received information on what their neighbors do. In other words, you may truly believe that what others do doesn’t affect you, but you’d be fooling yourself. Psychologists have shown time and again that what other people do greatly influences our own behavior.
The power of what others think is so pronounced that utilities now send customers information on their energy use in comparison to their neighbors’ energy use as a way of meeting energy conservation goals.
So, how does all of this play into President Trump and white supremacy? We care so much about what others think of us that we are actively looking for information on what others think. Social scientists describe social norms as “a reflection of the depth and breadth of preferences of a group of people.” Put simply, the more your friends seem to like drinking at the baseball game, the more you are going to feel social pressure to join in. If only a few friends are drinking and don’t make much of it, the pressure will be slight. If all of them are drinking and they are making much of it, the pressure will be greater.
Where do people look for information on what others believe? Politics, it ends up, is one of those places. Politics, after all, is majoritarian. When someone receives votes of approval by millions of Americans on a platform of hate, it sends a message to society that many more people condone hate than we originally thought. It sends a message about whether women can be groped and whether Muslims, Mexicans, and all others should be treated with dignity and respect.
This is the message that has been sent by the election of Donald Trump to the presidency. It is a message that has been hammered home again and again when Trump fails to condemn these groups. This is the backdrop against which all of the events in Charlottesville and the hundreds of hate crimes against Jews, Muslims, and other groups since the Trump election have taken place.
It is no surprise that, since the election, hate crimes have surged and the number of hate groups has surged as well. We used to think that most people in society didn’t believe these things and, as a result, the social norm kept people from acting on their hatred. Now, believing that many more people share their beliefs, the alt-right acts.
When its members act—whether it is Charlottesville or the destruction of headstones in a Jewish cemetery or the murder of a Muslim—we hear even more about people who vilify the other, and the social norm is further weakened. The norm has now been practically destroyed. We have reached a tipping point—a point where the norm has been so weakened that it may become unseated and replaced by a new norm of hate.
The only way to counter this phenomenon is to send a clear message that the majority of Americans do not condone the hate that has been unleashed since the last election. While we can all speak out, we must recognize that the power to communicate this message is not evenly distributed. Donald Trump is the central figure in this change in perceptions of social norms. He alone has the power to send a clear message that these beliefs are not the beliefs of society. Mitt Romney got it right when he wrote “[t]he potential consequences are severe in the extreme. Accordingly, the president must take remedial action in the extreme.”
Given how much we have seen the norm weakened by his actions and the actions of others during his campaign and presidency, this must just be the beginning. This is on the president; he has a lot of messaging to do before the hate will decrease.