​What the Hell Do You Have to Lose?

On Trump, the psychology of risk, and the American political imagination

Hold onto your hats, because I’m starting this column with a bombshell.

Donald Trump is not connecting with black Americans.

Now, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. After all, this is a man who has a “great relationship with the blacks” and would be reelected with “95 percent of the black vote.” In fact, Rudy Giuliani argues he might outperform every modern Republican in the demographic. (That one’s technically true, as Nate Cohn notes, because the election hasn’t happened yet.)

You already know where I’m going with this. In the non-Trumpian reality, for whatever it’s worth, Trump is polling very poorly among black Americans. By FiveThirtyEight’s count last month, he’s in fourth place. His recent appeals to the demographic have prompted offense and scorn, and deservedly: Trump is giving these speeches to overwhelmingly white audiences while doubling down on dog-whistle politics. And even an uncharacteristically pitch-perfect entreaty would only work if blacks forgot Trump’s career-long history of discrimination towards blacks and winking sympathy towards white nationalists.

So the pivot probably won’t work. (Sorry, Rudy.) But a phrase at the heart of Trump’s message to black voters—and the reaction to it—reveals a fascinating insight about how we think about politics. After rattling off a list of Black America’s problems, Trump asks, “What the hell do you have to lose?”


This is essentially the same pitch Trump makes to whites. Trump embraces, even exaggerates, how wildly different he is from other politicians. Since we all hate them so much (the thinking goes), why not give an outsider a chance? This idea won Trump a plurality of the Republican primary vote. It’s actually winning him a plurality of white voters in the general election, too. If Trump weren’t, well, Trump—that is, if another candidate, without his numerous racial miscues, tried this “Why not?” strategy—would it work with blacks?

I don’t think so, because of a psychological concept called gain-loss asymmetry. When we feel we’ve gained something, we’re reluctant to gamble it away; when we feel we’ve lost something, we’re willing to risk a considerable amount to get it back.

Black Americans are far more optimistic about the country’s trajectory than whites. Black voters over 65, who vote more than anyone else, are old enough to remember times before the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, and Fair Housing Act (the latter of which gave Trump his first brush with infamy). The rest at least remember a time when all American presidents had been white. Many will hear Trump’s question, think of the incremental-change model beloved by President Obama—to whom they give an approval rating in the 90s—and answer, “Everything.”

The white working class, though, feels that they’ve lost, “bigly.” Facing stagnant wages, decreasing lifespans, and shrinking political clout, they’ve largely grown pessimistic about the future, and Trump’s bleak take on the nation’s future matches their own. Maybe Trump’s message resonates with these voters because they see their livelihoods drifting away and are willing to roll the dice to get them back.

The gain-loss asymmetry framework helps explain how Trump fares among other demographics. Bisexual, gay, and lesbian Americans, who in their lifetimes have witnessed a stunning reversal of public opinion and equal treatment under the law, have especially good reason to distrust a candidate whose very slogan promises a return to the past. Sure enough, a poll released in May found that BGLT voters preferred Clinton to Trump by an even greater margin than they preferred their 2012 counterparts, even though Trump’s rhetoric on same-sex marriage and gender-neutral bathrooms are to the left of Romney’s.

The same framework also helps us reckon with Trump’s success. He presents himself as a wild card, a long-shot solution to revitalizing the American Dream. I imagine that a large number of third-party voters and even of Trump’s supporters think, “Sure, this guy could turn out to be a real disaster, but he couldn’t be worse than what we have.”

Such thinking, though, betrays a lack of imagination. Donald Trump could definitely be worse than what we have—or what we’ve ever had. That Trump is a stumble away from the presidency represents a failure on the part of the Republican Party and the horse-race-obsessed, false-equivalence-prone media. Whomever you consider to be the most destructive president in our history—W., Carter, Obama, whoever you’d like—still, inarguably, had guardrails to prevent him from doing anything truly cataclysmic. But those guardrails, like normal dispositions, mostly competent advisors, and a willingness to rule out first use of nuclear weapons, are not intrinsic to the office. A President Trump could, for example, launch nuclear weapons, still the most serious (and most strangely overlooked) threat to humanity, with little deliberation.

Risk is thrilling. If you feel like our country’s not as great as it used to be, you might feel like taking a gamble. But America risks throwing away a whole lot more than a few bucks at a failing Atlantic City casino.

Trevor J. Levin ’19, a Crimson staff writer, is a Social Studies concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Thursdays.


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