Lessons for Trump Detractors, Members of Congress From a Loyalty Expert

by Nathan L. Gonzales May 18, 2017 · 11:40 AM EDT

You’ve probably never heard of James Kane, but elected officials, party strategists, and even some reporters could learn from his perspective as a behavioral scientist (instead of a partisan hack) about how to fracture President Donald Trump’s base and the future of the two parties. 

I rarely have time to sit in on other sessions at conferences where I’m speaking, but when I saw Kane’s session on loyalty on the agenda last year at an event in Phoenix during the tumultuous presidential race, I decided to attend. I’m glad I did.

He delivered a compelling talk about the reasons why people are loyal to companies and brands while staying away from politics completely, as I remember. But I wanted to ask him about loyalty in politics, so I invited Kane to come by the Roll Call newsroom recently to continue our conversation.

“The misconception that most people have about loyalty is that it’s a selfless emotion. That it is some blind devotion that we give to others or some virtue that we owe something to someone,” Kane said. “Loyalty is a selfish emotion.”

According to Kane, people ask three basic internal questions when identifying something or someone worthy of loyalty: Do you make my life safer? Do you make my life easier? Do you make my life better?

That thought process helps explain the 2016 presidential nominating contests. “Of all the candidates, of all the issues they addressed, the only ones that clearly communicated that were Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump,” Kane said. “At least in a simplistic way for people to understand.”

“[The GOP primary race] became closer to anyone who just sat around a kitchen table or sat at a bar, complaining about the world’s problems and offering simplistic solutions — and in the past may have been ostracized for that or may have been ridiculed or ignored for that,” Kane said of Trump. “Now you had someone that spoke exactly like them.”

[Video] Loyalty & Trump: Conversation with James Kane

Of course, Sanders didn’t become the Democratic nominee (but his run was remarkable for an aging politician who isn’t even a Democrat) and Trump didn’t gain a majority of Republicans until the end. But his firm plurality of voters laid waste to the other contenders. Now it remains to be seen whether Democrats are willing to try a strategy that Trump’s GOP opponents were unwilling to follow.

“You cannot attack Donald Trump and expect to win,” Kane said, “What you need to do and what has always been true of any kind of group that’s had this loyal following, is you divide from the inside.

“It is truly about saying, ‘Do you feel comfortable standing next to a white supremacist?’ ‘Do you feel comfortable standing next to a racist?’” he continued.

It’s counterintuitive for a politician or candidate to demonize and alienate voters, and it would likely be met with public backlash (example, Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” comment). But it might also be necessary to fracture the Trump coalition.

“People don’t break free of a cult or anything else because they become disillusioned by the leader,” Kane said. “What normally happens is they become disillusioned by the people they are standing next to. They start seeing their behavior as something contrary to the reason that they joined or became part of the group in the first place.”

This has potentially broader implications for the two parties. If rank-and-file Republicans and Democrats feel like their party has changed and can no longer make their lives safer, easier, or better, than they’ve lost their reasons to be loyal.

“A lot of people accepted their fate in life, that they just didn’t have that voice or that power and so they elected people that could or would, and so they can identify with a larger group,” Kane said. “Now they don’t have to identify with any larger group. They can identify with themselves and they can create smaller, little functional groups and I think those are the people who, I think, are now either marching or showing up at town halls. They’ve formed their own little community, and I don’t think they’re loyal to anyone.”

Navigating these treacherous waters can be difficult for members of Congress trying to cultivate a base of support. Members should ask whether they are making their constituents’ lives demonstrably easier, safer and better, but the challenge is when the interests of their narrow constituency differs from the nationwide electorate.

[Video] Loyaly & Congress: Conversation with James Kane

“I don’t think you’re ever going to find a large majority of any group of people any more,” said Kane. “I think what you’re going to find is there are smaller groups who are going to have this plurality within the larger base, and they’ll represent the majority because they’re louder, more organized, and more passionate about something.”

And that’s what Kane would look for if he were running for office.

“I would find out who’s really the ones who are most passionate about whatever is happening next and figure out how to align yourself with them,” he said. “That may make them compromise some of their own values or beliefs, but those are the people with the power.”

Why don’t congressional Republicans oppose Trump when they wouldn’t normally support a candidate with his profile?

“What keeps them safe is supporting him. Not just because of his base but because he’s sitting in the White House right now,” Kane said. “If I want to challenge him, I’m going to make myself vulnerable. And that’s just the most unnatural thing, for people to deliberately leave themselves vulnerable.”

There are other potential pitfalls for Republicans.

“It’s easier to fight against something if I think it’s a threat to me,” Kane said, which should be good news for Democrats in the midterm elections with Republicans in control of government. “It’s harder for us to identify what we really want as much as it’s easier to say what we don’t want.”

The GOP’s struggle to pass its own health care plan is a perfect example.

“Once you’ve won, you don’t really feel the need to keep fighting,” Kane said.