Motivation and Meaning

Buried in the noise of the latest Trump shock story are larger questions: 1) What motivates people to say and do reprehensible things?; and 2) Where do we find meaning in swirling negativity of this campaign?

Please help me. I’m really trying to understand the reasons people would vote for Trump. I’m sick of listening to pundits blabbing endlessly about their particular issues. It seems more like empty speculation reflecting personal biases instead of a rigorous inquiry into what’s motivating support for the Republican presidential nominee.

Altered photo by Flickr user Nozomi (Shane Koh)
Altered photo | Author: Nizomi / Shane Koh | Source: Flickr | License: CC BY-NC 2.0

In 2005, Bill O’Brien and I wrote a book entitled Leadership Lexicon, which was based on an architecture we created that put character as the foundation for leadership. Without integrity, honesty, and maturity, it doesn’t matter how many skills a leader may have. If a leader does not possess strong character, skills and capabilities won’t cut it. Trump has demonstrated unequivocally that he lacks character.

The Leadership Architecture

To be clear, I am an enthusiastic supporter of Hillary Clinton, and I believe she is a tested leader with strong character. I am also horrified by the potential of a despicable, disingenuous, deranged, dangerous, delusional, and damaged demagogue becoming president. On the other hand, I don’t consider myself to be a raging radical. For example, while I disagreed with many of the policy positions of McCain and Romney, I still viewed them as decent men who were dedicated to public service. And I could respect the decision to support them. But voting for Trump, particularly now, crosses the line for me. It somehow represents something dark and ugly.

Given that backdrop, I would still like to understand, respectfully and honestly, what would motivate someone to vote for Trump and to understand what the results mean for American culture. This election is not a referendum on Trump’s character; that ship has already sailed. It’s a revelation of the American culture.

After reading hundreds of articles on various theories, I have no idea how one might attribute the approximate weighting of the various factors I have read. Instead of lumping all Trump supporters into baskets describing them as racist, misogynist, alienated, xenophobic, or deplorable, I would like to get a more definitive sense of the critical variables fueling their motivations.

Here’s a survey I developed that categorizes possible reasons for voting for Trump by beliefs, feelings, and thoughts. Beliefs are statements in support of abstract ideas with no substantive policies associated with them. Feelings are emotional reactions of anger, fear, insecurity and distrust. Thoughts are primarily statements of support for specific policy positions.


I am voting for Donald Trump in this election, because:

  1. I believe in the Republican platform, have always voted Republican and will continue to do so.
  2. I don’t believe a woman is ready or able to be President and Commander in Chief.
  3. I believe Trump, as an outsider, will change the dysfunctional government we now have.
  4. I believe Trump will defeat ISIS and terrorism.
  5. I believe Trump will build a wall on the Mexican border.
  6. I believe Trump will strengthen our military.
  7. I believe Trump will make America great again.
  8. I believe Trump will restore America’s perceived power in the world – we need to be seen as exceptional.
  9. I believe Trump will restore law and order to our cities.
  10. I believe Trump understands the tax code and how to run a business.
  11. I believe Trump will create new jobs.
  12. I believe Trump will force US companies to bring jobs back to America.
  13. I believe Trump doesn’t care if he is politically correct or not.
  14. I believe Trump is not beholden to special interest groups.
  15. I believe Trump will win the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
  16. I believe Trump will win the war in Syria.
  17. I’m afraid that, under Clinton, LGBT rights will be expanded.
  18. I’m afraid that, under Clinton, gun control laws will become more restrictive.
  19. I’m afraid that, under Clinton, liberal Supreme Justices will be appointed.
  20. I’m afraid that, under Clinton, there will be more regulations.
  21. I’m afraid that, under Clinton, government spending will increase.
  22. I’m afraid that, under Clinton, the Affordable Health Care Act will be expanded.
  23. I’m afraid that, under Clinton, voter registration laws will be liberalized.
  24. I’m afraid that, under Clinton, pro-choice will receive more support.
  25. I’m afraid that, under Clinton, black lives will matter more than white lives.
  26. I’m afraid that, under Clinton, immigration laws will be less restrictive
  27. I’m angry that politicians make promises on which they don’t deliver and Trump is not a politician.
  28. I’m angry that that Democratic elites control the government.
  29. I’m angry that I’ve been left behind in this new economy.
  30. I’m angry that I don’t have the economic opportunities I once had.
  31. I’m angry that I don’t have the power and privilege I once had.
  32. I’m angry that political correctness has stifled my free expression
  33. I’m angry that the Clintons have established a political dynasty.
  34. I’m angry that the Clintons give special access to people who contribute to their campaign and/or Foundation.
  35. I’m angry that the Clintons make so much money on speeches to Wall Street Firms.
  36. I hate Hillary.
  37. I feel insecure about my economic future and hope Trump will rescue me.
  38. I love Donald Trump’s style.
  39. I think Trump will preserve the tax cuts I now have and provide additional tax breaks.
  40. I think Trump will overturn the Iran deal.
  41. I think Trump will gut Medicaid.
  42. I think Trump will back out of the Climate Change Agreement and support more coal production.
  43. I think Trump won’t be afraid to use the nuclear option.
  44. I think Trump will not allow the Transpacific Trade Deal to take place.
  45. I think Trump will support pro-life legislation.
  46. I think Trump will restrict immigration and keep Muslims out.
  47. I think Trump will reduce funding for Medicare and Social Security
  48. I don’t trust Hillary because of the e-mail allegations.
  49. I don’t trust Hillary because of Benghazi.
  50. I don’t trust Hillary because of the Whitewater allegations.

I could probably add to this list of possible factors, and I suspect you could as well. But I’m truly befuddled. I have no idea which 10 of these factors most account for Trump’s support, particularly after a released tape put the final nail in the conclusion that Trump is a serial sex abuser entitled to grope women because he is a “star.”  If I knew, I might be able to address the concerns with a more pointed point of view. Yes, I’m guilty of believing that Trump’s supporters prefer fiction to facts and could care less about evidence. And I see this election as a marketing campaign aimed at emotions, not a leadership campaign based on solid, intellectual reasoning.  (Please excuse my elitist assumptions.) Still, I would like to know what factors carry the most motivational weight, and I think America deserves a rigorous analysis of what people are really thinking, feeling, and believing.

In light of the irrefutable evidence that Trump is a liar and sexual predator, even if a supporter checked all 50 reasons why he or she is voting for Trump, it still doesn’t justify putting a man in the house who has no character and who consistently abuses power and privilege. The real question is what’s motivating people like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell to continue to support him. It certainly appears that ideology trumps innovation and idealism in their minds. Yes, I know Ryan said he would no longer defend him, but he didn’t withdraw his endorsement.

Indeed, in spite of the enormous gaps in qualifications, temperament and, yes, character between the two candidates, I don’t think this election is an individual issue. It’s a cultural issue. It’s not about Trump or Clinton. It’s about the mentality of the American public and the motivations of the media. As my friend, Michael Serino would say, “It’s a question of whether or not intellect matters anymore.” If intellect doesn’t matter to close to 50% of the American public, there are profound implications for the U. S. of A.

Let’s face the real meaning here: the problem is us – America.  All of us. We are either too smug, too ignorant, too dogmatic, too elitist, too racist, too lazy, too closed, too misogynistic, too certain, too silent, too angry, too fearful, too lethargic, or too condescending. We need to understand what’s happening, and we need to change. If Hillary wins (which I think she will), we can breathe a deep sigh of relief that this insanity is over, and the pundits will finally stop talking.

The culture war, however, will continue to rage. And 40% of the population will feel bitter and enraged, because, once again, they have been crushed by the establishment and the media. So let’s not get too comfortable until we have a deep and fair understanding of what this means for our culture (i.e. the flashpoints) and some solutions for addressing America’s problems. Trump is simply a symptom of cultural malaise.  He is the middle finger of an alienated group of voters to the political establishment.

It’s still a mystery to me what motivates people to do and say and believe what they do, and where we can find meaning. For me, those are the larger issues here. It’s the questions that confuse us, not the answers that soothe us, which may illuminate our way out of this mess.  May we live fully in the questions of motivation and meaning instead of dying futilely in the certainty of our answers and beliefs.

Also published on Medium.

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I agree that we don’t have a candidate issue, but really have a cultural issue. For me, both Clinton and Trump suffer from many of the same sins in one way or another and I am not happy with either. That being said, Mrs Clinton is an unapologetic supporter of “the right” to end the life of an innocent human being in the womb. For me, if a candidate can’t protect the most vulnerable, how can they be trusted with anything else? Then we discuss the direction of the country, party platforms, etc. If a candidate is acceptable on many… Read more »
Scott Bevins

Rick .. Great list of 50 points/questions.. My guess is that someone only needs one of those to be the reason they would vote for Trump rather than Hillary..


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