President Trump’s job approval rating has reached 49%, the highest level since he entered office, according to a new Gallup poll conducted this week. That his approval rating percentage is in the 40s is no surprise because of continued strong support from his base, which has hovered between 40-45% for most of his presidency. But reaching the approval of nearly half of Americans is news.

That close to half of the American public now approves of his performance may surprise some, not only because his handling of COVID-19 has been slow off the mark, but also because political opinion in the United States has become so polarised, there appear to be few willing to move from one side to the other.

Apparently, a small percentage of Democrats and Independents have been persuaded by Trump’s performance just enough to edge him closer to getting the support of half of all Americans.

Donald Trump
President of the United States Donald Trump. File photo: US Gov’t.

Watching Trump at his daily press conferences where he gives an update, I find it difficult to understand how half of all Americans can support him. The braggadocio. The self-aggrandisement. The narcissism. The out and out lies. The racism and sexism. The prickliness when a reporter asks a challenging question. The reckless recommendation of unproven drugs. The refusal to admit mistakes. The unpresidential behaviour. The list is long.

This makes one part of me completely befuddled by how anyone, let alone tens of millions of people, can possibly support the man.

Yet, this is just my opinion. Close to half of all Americans apparently think otherwise, or are willing to forgive his peccadilloes. And this is the part that is intriguing. Surely half of all Americans are not so gullible to be taken in by this snake oil salesman, hook, line and sinker.

And that would be just about right. It’s not that they are gullible, but rather that they have a long-standing set of beliefs that are firmly entrenched and remarkably inflexible. And Trump just happens to be the figurehead representing those beliefs. So their support is not so much about his performance as it is about the beliefs he represents.

Here in Hong Kong, where society has also become very polarised, there are distinct parallels with entrenched beliefs on both sides, yellow and blue. But before examining these beliefs, a detour into psychology and genetics may be helpful.

Jonathan Haidt, psychology professor and author of The Righteous Mind, provides a compelling explanation about how political beliefs evolve. We are all born with behavioural tendencies. For example, some of us are terrified of standing on a stage and speaking to a crowd while others are completely comfortable doing so. To some extent, we are born that way.

Parents with more than one child are acutely aware of such differences when the second child comes along. In other words, we are all born on an introvert-extrovert continuum, one of several dimensions influenced by our genes.

Studies of identical twins separated at birth and raised apart have increased our understanding of which behavioural traits tend to be inherited.

October 16 LegCo policy address protest
Chief Executive Carrie Lam enters the Chamber of the Legislative Council Complex in order to deliver her 2019 Policy Address. Photo:

As for political leanings, one trait that is known to be inherited, or influenced by our genes, is our sensitivity to threats or risk tolerance,

Haidt explains how political beliefs are partly influenced by our DNA by asking us to imagine fraternal twins, a sister and brother, that are born with a slightly different tolerance to risk or threats simply through the random genetic luck of the draw.

The brother is a bit more sensitive to threats, and tends to feel less pleasure when exposed to new experiences than his sister. Even though the two are raised in the same home and go to the same school, their slightly different personalities cause their parents, friends and teachers to treat them a bit differently.

Haidt describes how as the siblings get older, their interests begin to differ. The more rebellious sister joins the debate team which provides travel opportunities and exposure to a variety of experiences and opinions. This exposes her to a more liberal outlook on life.

In the meantime, the more conservative brother gravitates towards the church. Concurrently, their respective peer groups form and through these influences, both genetic and environmental, their political beliefs evolve.

Of course, this is greatly simplified, but the main point of the scenario remains: our political beliefs are a complex mixture of our genetics and upbringing. This is not to say that someone born with a low risk tolerance could not gravitate to the left, or vice versa. Formative experiences during one’s youth are still powerful. However, on average, our genetic propensities during our early years can nudge us left or right on the political spectrum.

district council election november 11 (16)
Photo: Galileo Cheng/HKFP.

Then, once our beliefs are established, they are unlikely to change. And although we are still able to argue logically, our reasoning is motivated – or in reality, tainted – by our belief system, which of course, is not good.

Arguments should be judged on their own merits without any influence from our beliefs. However, ignoring our beliefs is very difficult, especially when our fellow tribe members are promoting group-think through social media which discourages any sort of dissension.

Here in Hong Kong we are experiencing what are probably historical extremes of polarised thinking. For those in the blue camp, whatever ideas or behaviours come from the yellow camp are deplorable by definition, no matter how sensible they are. Likewise, the yellow camp immediately denounces whatever scheme the government proposes or the police attempt.

Monday July 1 china extradition protest
Black Bauhinia flag is raised at the legislature by protesters. July 1, 2019. Photo: Isaac Yee/HKFP.

Clearly what is needed is some deep reflection about our belief processes in which we try to assess critically our beliefs and biases. As a mental exercise, when I switch on Fox News or watch Trump, I attempt to suspend my antipathy and instead act as a believer in the policies and delivery.

Although this is exceedingly difficult, it is a necessary exercise because it is only through seeing the world through the eyes of our adversaries that we have any chance to come to a meeting of the minds. Yellow and blue members could try a similar exercise.

paul stapleton

Paul Stapleton

Paul Stapleton is a long-time resident of several countries in Asia, where he has been teaching and researching at various universities. He writes about environmental, social and educational issues. In his op-eds, Paul's goal is to shed some light on issues of interest as well as generate a bit of heat. Paul’s website is at Academic Proofreading Plus.