Why Would Groups Attacked by Trump Vote For Him?

Identifying with the aggressor is a self-defense mechanism.

Posted Nov 11, 2016

Donald Trump has attacked many groups including, Latinos, women, African Americans, American-Muslims, Muslims in general and people with disabilities. So, when it comes to choosing a presidential candidate, the logical part of the brain says “I got this, this is an easy question”. It proudly and effortlessly responds “anyone other than Trump”. And of course, this should be an easier question to answer for marginalized groups!

Let’s check with the national exit polls. According to these polls, almost 1 every 3 Latino vote went to Trump (29%). Obviously, there is something else going on other than an error in cognition here and there. There seems to be a pattern, something that could be explained by science.

Why would some people fall in love with their attacker? It turns out that this is a well-known phenomenon called the Stockholm Syndrome. It is used to describe hostages who have sympathy and empathy toward their captor. In fact, the hostages might go to great lengths to defend, protect and even die for their captor.  The syndrome was named after a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden where the bank employees were held captive for a few days in 1973. Overtime, the hostages developed an emotional bond with their captors and even defended them. When the government offered assistance, the hostages refused it. In sum, the symptoms of the Stockholm Syndrome can be summarized as identifying with the person in power and resisting rescuers.

But why? The answer lies in the unconscious and not the logical brain. Identifying with the aggressor is one of the many self protective tools that is used in traumatic situations. Freud listed a number of self-defense mechanisms that we all use to protect our ego from painful or socially unacceptable behaviors. In this case, identifying with the aggressor provides a temporary bandage to conceal deep scars of anxiety, feelings of inferiority and pain. Ferenczi (1933) who came up with the term “Identification with the aggressor” explained that we identify with controllers when we feel overwhelmed by inescapable threat. This phenomenon is not limited to traumatic situations, but it can develop in anyone (Frankel, 2002). Some of the conditions that might encourage such manifestation are:

  • Feelings of inferiority, helplessness or hopelessness
  • The existence of a much more powerful and confident controller
  • Being immersed in overwhelming or challenging situations

Sometimes, the victim seems to be hypnotized by their attacker to fulfill their wishes and demands, as Howell (2014) described in the American Journal of Psychoanalysis. Furthermore, it is not uncommon to impersonate the attacker. As Anna Freud (1936) pointed out “by impersonating the aggressor, assuming his attributes or imitating his aggressions, the child transforms himself from the person threatened into the person who makes the threat” (p. 113).

The brain’s news feed is continuously making (or making up) stories to rationalize the world around us. It tries to come up with stories that make us look good, even if it means to completely distort the truth. if it means to completely distort the truth. Identifying with the aggressor, championing them, believing their beliefs and chanting their phrases, are ways to calm down the storm in the brains of marginalized groups.

In other words, instead of accusing people who voted for Trump of betrayal, I would encourage everyone to see beyond their immediate behaviors. It is these exact people who surprised their communities by voting for trump who need sympathy, kindness and some level of tolerance.

On a more hopeful note, let’s hope that Donald Trump develops the Lima Syndrome, in which abductors develop sympathy for their hostages. 

References:

Ferenczi, S. (1933). Confusion of tongues between adults and the child. In: Final Contributions to the Problems and Methods of Psycho-Analysis, ed. M. Balint (trans. E. Mosbacher). London: Karnac Books, 1980, pp. 156-167.

Frankel, J. (2002). Exploring Ferenczi’s Concept of Identification with the Aggressor: Its Role in Trauma, Everyday Life, and the Therapeutic Relationship. Psychoanalytic Dialogues, 12.

Freud, A. (1936). The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defense (rev.). New York: International Universities Press.

Howell, E. (2014). Ferenczi's concept of identification with the aggressor: understanding dissociative structure with interacting victim and abuser self-states. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 74, 48-59.