Maslow’s Hierarchy and the Election of 2016

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As a general rule, anyone who did not vote for Donald Trump for president wants to know why anyone else did. Along those lines, I was thinking about the way I introduce motivation when discussing argumentation, in terms of needs and values. In Elements of Argument, we explain an argument’s appeal to needs by citing Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy, explained in his 1943 “Theory of Motivation.” The most basic needs that motivate a human being are physiological: the need for food, water, sex, etc. Next comes the need for safety—security of one’s person, the family, health, property. It is difficult to focus on any other needs if one is hungry or lives in fear. Later Maslow revised his theory to explain that people’s needs on one level do not have to be completely met before they can concern themselves with the higher levels. Still, it is, as Maslow theorized, a hierarchy of needs. Only when physiological and safety needs have largely been met can people worry about the need for love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

A surprising number of authors have applied Maslow’s Hierarchy to the 2016 presidential election. Jamie Beckland does so in this way: “The biggest lesson for any political candidate is that they must speak to the lowest common denominator need on Maslow’s hierarchy that a majority of the electorate will relate to. A political campaign that helps people believe that they can become self-actualized, and achieve their highest and best dreams, can only win if the majority of the electorate believes they are safe; that they belong; and that they have self-worth. On the other hand, if the majority of the electorate does not feel confident in having food, clothing, and shelter, then a campaign focused on self-actualization is doomed.” Beckland writes about how Clinton “spoke to building a sense of community – of being Stronger Together. This appeals to our need for ‘Love and Belonging,’ and many people voted for Clinton because she represented this need. The need for Love and Belonging manifests itself in ideas like: The need for safe spaces, where minorities and historically oppressed groups can express their perspectives without fear of persecution. The need for women to have a voice in the political establishment, and to believe that any qualified person would be judged on their qualifications for the presidency, and not by their gender. The need to see yourself as part of the great American experiment, where people of different creeds and colors assemble under a shared vision of freedom and opportunity.” Beckland argues that Clinton lost because Trump appealed to more basic needs, to which voters responded more strongly.

The fact that the Trump campaign understood the lesson Maslow had to teach is evidenced by its emphasis on job security, affordable healthcare, and security from threats posed by illegal aliens. Phil Fragasso explains, “At its most basic level, Trump’s harsh rhetoric appeals to the bottommost layers of Maslow’s hierarchy - physiological and safety needs. He’s going to deliver more jobs at higher pay, make ‘winning’ so common it becomes boring, and ensure that Americans are protected against terrorists domestic and foreign, can shout ‘Merry Christmas’ from the highest rooftops, and stop Mexicans from taking the jobs that Americans don’t want.” Fragasso differs from some other analysts in arguing that the next two levels on the hierarchy “best explain Trump’s core character and his continuing support: esteem and love/belonging.” Fragasso’s own bias is clear as he goes on, “Most tellingly, Trump provided his loyal supporters with something they rarely experience: the very same esteem and love/belonging [that Trump himself experiences]. Trump voters tend to reside on the fringes where they are often afraid to voice their politically incorrect (and often abhorrently [sic]) beliefs and opinions.”

For Trump, as for any president, success and continued support from those who voted for him depend on whether or not he is able to fill the needs to which he appealed when he won their votes.

Image Source: “Louvre Pyramid - Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs” by pshegubj on Flickr 6/30/12 via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 license.

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About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.