In our last article, we explored some of the reasons frequently given for the fascinating rise of Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential campaign.  A lot of our readers added their own thoughts….both on the Conscious Bridge website as well as on various Facebook postings of the article.  I appreciated all of the ideas.

In this article, I want to add some additional thoughts to the topic by looking at it from what I call an “evolutionary lens”.  First, I will explain what I mean by that and then we will consider how we might just “naturally” have arrived at this juncture in regards to the growing support of Mr. Trump.

Evolutionary Lens?

Most of us are familiar with the basic concepts of evolution. The theory of evolution describes how after life emerged on Earth, it has continuously sought to best adapt to its environment so as to survive and reproduce more offspring. We usually refer to this as “survival of the fittest”.  Key to the theory is that life’s reproduction of itself is not a process where it copies itself perfectly but that changes are introduced which in some cases are a better fit for the environment.  In such cases, the offspring with the new and better adaptations will live longer and produce more of itself.  Yet the environment is in a state of flux as well. Hence, life is in a continuous dance, ever changing itself to be the best fit for the new environment it finds itself in.

Most of us tend to think of evolution as relating only to the development of the various physical traits among all of the species. This is probably due to how we were taught it back in biology class. Yet, evolutionary scientists also use the theory to explain how animals also try out new behaviors in attempts to increase “fitness”.  If they are successful, such tendencies get passed along through reproduction and over time tend to become “instinctive” and hard to change.

In recent years, there has also been an ever expanding use of “evolutionary psychology” to explain how over time humans also developed behavioral patterns based on attempts to survive and reproduce.   The problem, of course, is that many of our hardwired behavioral patterns (or instincts) were developed in response to the very different world of the distant past such as when we were hunter-gatherers.  We still carry these patterns within us, but unfortunately they are not necessarily the best  response in our modern world.  This is generally referred to as  “evolutionary mismatch”. One of the best known examples of this is our physical urge to consume as much sugar or fat as possible.  This was beneficial when it was rarely available, not so much now when it is plentiful.

Politics is just a specific form of human behavior. As such, just like other behaviors, aspects of our political actions were chosen and wired into us in a much different world. Author Rick Shenkman’s recent book Political Animals How Our Stone Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics, is a fascinating summary of this mismatch.  Hence, putting on an “evolutionary lens” simply means that we look at our behaviors — in this case, political ones —  and see how they might have developed in response to our environmental needs — both in our evolutionary past as well as now.  Can we consider the behavior being the best “fit” for the circumstances?

So let’s look the rise of Donald Trump which such a lens.

When Our Needs are Threatened

Trump’s supporters are certainly passionate and highly motivated. But what is inciting their passion?  One of the best models, in my opinion, of understanding human motivation was Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs“.  He described how there were certain basic needs such as physiological (food, water, warmth, sex) which must be met before we could focus on certain safety needs (security, order, stability).  Those needs had to be met before we could focus on ” love and belonging” needs (be accepted by others, have stable relationships).  Higher up the chain of motivators were self-esteem needs (be recognized, admired, have power) and self actualization needs (realizing our full potential as a person).  If at any time a “lower” need was not met, our focus slid down the hierarchy to that need which demanded our attention.

Our goal, according to Maslow, was to work to meet our lower needs so that we could move up to focusing on our higher needs and live a life of our full possibilities.  Unfortunately, our modern world is full of threats (real and imagined) that impact our sense of security and stability.  Each day we are bombarded with messages of terrorists, war, political strife and other challenges to our way of life. We each deal with these tests in different ways.  Many feel insecure and such insecurities can give rise to many emotions, especially when we feel things are beyond our control.  One of those emotions is anger.

One of the characteristics frequently cited in regards to Trump’s supporters is their anger.  Evolutionary psychology tells us that we naturally evolved the emotion of anger so as to ignite us into immediate action. It helped us fend off attacks and quickly moved us into aggressive behavior out of the need for survival. We also developed our “angry face” which can serve as a threatening posture and telegraph our intentions to others with whom we have a potential conflict. Some psychologists believe that anger also developed so as to put ourselves in a better bargaining position with others – our anger may cause the other person to give us more in a negotiation so as to appease us.  Anger can be an advantageous response at times.

Most of Trump’s followers are angry and feel like their way of life or their dreams for the future are being threatened. They feel frustration over the inability of our leaders to put in place effective action that will move our country forward.  At some deep seated level, they feel that their very survival is at stake.  However this doesn’t really get at the issue as to why they are supporting Trump. To move to that answer we need to consider “worldviews”.

Evolutionary Development of Worldviews

We tend to believe that everyone sees and interprets the world in exactly the same way and that is just not the case according to certain psychologists. Many offer that we each have our own subjective pattern of beliefs that both filters what we actually perceive as well as guiding us to the meaning we attach to those perceptions. Could it be that our sets of beliefs are tied to our evolutionary needs, that we see and judge the outer world in a way that is a best fit for our conditions?  This possibility can be seen in the work of psychologist Clare Graves.

Graves, a contemporary of Maslow’s, conducted longitudinal studies of individual’s values that led him to developing a theory based on his data. His theory has strong implications for how we might consider an individual is interpreting the world around themselves in this current moment, but it also offers wisdom for our collective evolutionary path.  Let us briefly state some simplified concepts of the theory to set the context for our discussion here.

First, here is what Graves postulated about an individual’s value set:

(1) each of us has a particular set of values that guides our lives; this value set impacts our goals, our coping systems, our preferred leadership/follower style, our preferred social organizations and other factors;

(2) that there is a degree of standardization of these sets of values (which we can call “worldviews”);

(3) that our worldview arises to meet the needs of our particular life circumstances (in other words, it’s a best “fit” in evolutionary terms);

(4) that as we meet or master the conditions of our current life circumstances that tends to call forth the emergence of a new set life conditions requiring the emergence of a new worldview to meet it;

(5) each of us evolve through the same standard order of worldviews (see descriptions below) from our birth up to the one we currently hold (although we can frequently employ different worldviews for different areas of our life);

(6) that deterioration in our life conditions can regress us back to earlier worldviews from which we had already evolved beyond.

Next, let us consider how Graves’ theory might impact humanity collectively:

(1) that in our evolutionary past as humans, there was one or more worldviews that were overall the best fit for life on earth at that time;

(2) that in our human history, as we evolved to more complex world conditions, new worldviews emerged to meet those conditions;

(3) that groups of humans (countries, companies, religious groups, etc.) both in our past and now can have a predominant worldview that permeates the members of that group;

(4) that as the world is full of different people living in different circumstances, hence it has concurrently existing groups of people who have different worldviews;

(5) that when people or groups with different worldviews attempt to talk about what is needed in a particular situation, they frequently cannot agree because how they “see” the world is not the same; and

(6) that in our current times, there are new worldviews emerging to meet the needs of ever more complex world and that one characteristic of these new viewpoints is that such individuals are becoming aware of all these different worldviews operating simultaneously…and they are beginning to use new leadership and communication styles to meet this variety of belief sets.

Graves outlined the sequence of those standard worldviews that his data pointed us as moving through.  Later, Don Beck and the late Chris Cowan built on his work and popularized it under the name “Spiral Dynamics” (assigning colors to make talking about it easier).  Here is the progression of those outlooks that we move through according to the theory:

Survivalistic (beige)– exists in the earliest people and newborn infants; basic physical needs are what is most important.

Magical (purple) – exists in early tribes and very young children; believes in sacred objects and magical rituals; the tribe or family is very important.

Impulsive (red) – exists in feudal kingdoms and the “terrible twos”; the world is seen as a jungle of threats; seeks to dominate others through aggression; free of guilt; seeks to please self without constraint.

Purposeful (blue) – exists in cultures where religion and laws emerged; believes that life has meaning, direction and purpose with predetermined outcomes; seeks to sacrifice the self to a greater cause; everybody has their proper place in society; guilt used to control people. (Note-I frequently reference this as “traditional”)

Achievist (orange) – came about through the enlightenment and development of science; prevalent on Wall Street; one should act in their own self-interest by playing the game to win; progress is defined by learning nature’s secrets and seeking out the best solutions; important is manipulating the earth’s resources to create the good life. (Note-I frequently reference this as “materialistic-scientific”)

Communitarian (green) – emerged fully in late 20th century; believes that feelings, sensitivity and caring supersede cold rationality; Earth’s resources and opportunities should be spread equally among all; decisions should be reached through consensus; spiritual but not religious. (Note-I frequently reference this as “humanitarian or cultural creatives”)

Integrative (yellow) – in the early stages of emerging; begins to see all of the worldviews and their importance; magnificence of existence is valued over material possessions; recognizes the natural hierarchies, systems and interplay of all of life; knowledge and competency is more important than power and status.

Holistic (turquoise) – in the very early stages of emerging; sees the wholeness of existence through mind and spirit; the self is a distinct but blended part of a larger, greater whole; everything connects to everything else.

NOTE: The above is just the briefest of an overview. I have written here on Conscious Bridge many times about the theory of Spiral Dynamics.  Those wanting more detail can click here  or do a search of the internet.

So how can this theory potentially help us understand why certain people resonate more strongly with the message of Donald Trump? Consider the following (and again, I am way over simplifying!):

  • The vast majority of Americans living side by side fall into one of three of the above worldviews – blue, orange and green.
  • Blue likes order and structure and defined rules. This includes most fundamentalist religious people. I suspect many with this viewpoint tend to support Trump or Ted Cruz.
  • Orange likes accumulating wealth and manipulating the world for personal gain. I suspect that people with this predominant viewpoint are split among different candidates, including Trump, Marco Rubio and probably Hillary Clinton.
  • Green seeks equality, cares about people. I suspect that many with this viewpoint probably support Bernie Sanders as well as Clinton.
  • The sense of threat that many in blue as well as orange feel can tend to lead to their regression to earlier levels. Hence, you have a growing number of people who are exhibiting a mixture of the red and blue worldviews.
  • This mixture of red-blue worldview exhibits some of these characteristics: becomes impulsive behavior, exhibits less guilt, seeks to dominate situations and people without concern for consequences, trusts less people, fights to avoid loss of face, feels they must wield power in a world filled with aggression, seeks to bring order and stability to the world through classifying things as “good” and “evil”. In other words, they are coalescing into a type of authoritarian behavior.


Authoritarianism is defined as a form of government with a strong central power and limited political freedoms. It typically places constraints on political institutions in groups. It uses emotion to rally people together so as to point at some “other” group as an evil to combat. It frequently suppresses political opponents. It often gives its executive shifting and vague powers so as to keep order and combat “the other”.

In this article from the website, data is used to support the link between Americans who hold an authoritarian position and their support of Donald Trump. In referencing the work of Karen Stenner, the article states “that many authoritarians might be latent — that they might not necessarily support authoritarian leaders or policies until their authoritarianism had been ‘activated’.”

It adds: “This activation could come from feeling threatened by social changes such as evolving social norms or increasing diversity, or any other change that they believe will profoundly alter the social order they want to protect. In response, previously more moderate individuals would come to support leaders and policies we might now call Trump-esque.”

Yet it goes on to point out that other psychologists believe that such individuals are not “activating” authoritarian tendencies but instead always held them. As such, these individuals “only come to express those preferences once they feel threatened by social change or some kind of threat from outsiders.”

As one reads this and considers it in combination with Spiral Dynamics, it’s easy to contemplate that this tendency towards authoritarianism is a natural evolutionary tendency that exists in all of us whether we want to admit it or not.  Many may either currently hold that view (as they already lived in within that worldview) or they may have been forced into “activating” it by shifting their viewpoint based on the needs and concerns of the outer world.  For many of us who don’t feel that such authoritarianism is appropriate, it’s possibly that our personal life conditions did not cause it to emerge at this time.

So What is the Point Here?

There are many other evolutionary reasons that we could consider in relation to understanding Trump’s support. For example, we could consider their use of our natural “confirmation bias” and “disconfirmation bias” mechanisms to guide their selection of “facts” to fit their existing political beliefs. Or, we might consider that the evolutionary limits on our degree of empathy we can employ that Shenkman discusses in his book may be a factor.  In other words, I fully acknowledge there may be even more evolutionary forces at play here that I have not included.  However, I think we can all agree that this article has already gone on way too long!

Therefore, in summary, here are the key ideas I hope this article conveys:

Our evolution has led us to developing through a series of differing worldviews to best address our life circumstances.

The feeling of insecurity (through terrorism, the nightly negative news, global unrest, political polarization and stagnation) can cause many of us to regress to focusing on lower level needs, responding with anger and potentially shifting our worldview backwards to one that may better fit the circumstances of the world we now perceive ourselves living in.

Substantial numbers of individuals have been impacted by fear so as to shift their worldview and opening themselves to prefering an “authoritarian” leader as the one who can best address our current unstable times.

That this response can be seen as normal.  In the right circumstances, any of us could have moved into seeing this as the proper course of action. 

Such understanding opens us to compassion and tends to possibly lessening our negative judgment of such people (if we would let it).

Finally, if any of this is truly what may be playing a part in what is going on here with the rise of Trump, then there may be a better response than arguing and fighting with those who hold different beliefs.

Maybe the real goal should be to consider how we might change the world conditions so that people don’t feel as if they are living in fear and uncertainly.  If individuals could feel secure in the world, then maybe they could move up Maslow’s hierarchy to focus on higher needs.  Maybe they could let go of their need for an authoritarian leader and evolve back to “higher” worldviews.

Could it be that perhaps in our responses to our political polarization we are focusing on symptoms and not the root cause?

More on that point in an upcoming article…..

Mark Gilbert


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