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Tentative Teachings on Conflict from Trump’s Tumultuous Tenure in Office

Originally published in the Wiley Online Library.

The Tragedy of Social Learning When the Learning is Anti-Social

It is always too soon to tell the future, especially in the era of President Donald Trump. Every morning brings new tweets and turmoil from the Oval Office, the consequences of which are often felt around the world. Nevertheless, I will attempt to hit pause on this time of unprecedented runaway uncertainty in our country, and speculate on a few of the possible consequences of the Trump presidency for the field of conflict resolution and negotiation.

Decades of research on social learning theory have demonstrated that when “models” enact certain behaviors (like punching a Bobo doll), the observers of the behavior often learn it vicariously and adopt it (Bandura, Ross, and Ross 1961; Bandura 1977). A recent series of studies found that when high-powered leaders model unethical behavior and get away with it, it helps create and reinforce norms that make such behaviors more acceptable (Bauman, Tost, and Ong 2016). This all suggests that Donald Trump’s current modeling of morally questionable conflict behaviors – which include daily public attacks of a personal nature on opponents and former allies, frequent expression of untruthful statements,1

common attempts at distraction, exaggeration of some facts and denial of others, overestimation of the positive impact of his actions and underestimation of the negative, and a predilection for an autocratic, “take-it-or-else” style of bargaining – will become more acceptable and pronounced. The POTUS (President of the United States) modeling platform has unrivaled reach.

I offer one caveat regarding these effects: such Trumpian conflict tactics are less likely to be replicated if Trump is not seen as being rewarded for his actions. In that case, these behaviors are likely to recede into the same receptacles of history as those of Senator Joseph McCarthy and President Richard Nixon. But if he is rewarded – for example, by winning re-election, by retaining a Congressional majority in the mid-term elections, or by managing to avoid impeachment – we can expect to see a major cultural shift in deal making of all types going forward.

The Power of Resonance and Fear: Playing to the Pulse of the Very Afraid

One of the Trump team’s most effective strategies for mobilizing support was to systematically study the emotional landscape of his potential supporters. Beginning in 2014, Trump assigned aides to listen to thousands of hours of talk radio and deliver reports on what most resonated with Republican voters. What they found was that immigration riled his base more than any other issue (Garofalo 2016). This then became his signature campaign issue.

Trump’s premeditated mining of his constituency’s concerns was powerfully effective and it merits understanding, especially for those negotiating on behalf of constituent groups. Strong political support can be a powerful source of negotiation leverage.

The specific focus of Team Trump’s research – on what his base feared and was most angered by – is notable. Fear and anger are low-hanging fruit when it comes to political motivation. They are basic, primitive motives, and therefore tend to be readily accessible and highly motivating (Baumeister et al. 2001). But leveraging toxic emotions like fear and anger with groups tends to increase anxiety, suspicion, and paranoia, even within the ingroup (witness the many Trump staffers and associates who have secretly recorded their conversations with him). Furthermore, the scapegoating and vilification of outgroups that often follow after fear is stoked can easily lead to destructive escalatory spirals and can culminate in violence (see Anderson and Bushman 2002). Manipulation of such hot emotional levers is therefore hard to control and sustain. It is playing with fire, which often burns everyone involved.

From Manageable Differences to Intractable Divides: The Consequences of Leveraging Intergroup Enmity
E pluribus unum (out of many, one) has stood as the motto of the United States since 1795, and has long signaled a core strength of our nation: our differences. Many of these differences represent major fault lines underlying our society, such as religious-secular, rural-urban, poor-wealthy, white-nonwhite, uneducated-highly educated, armed-unarmed, immigrant-native, and so on. Achieving unum, or unity, across these divides is hard work that requires vigilant, transcendent, unifying leadership.

Donald Trump’s dominant style of leadership is divisive. He set up his presidential run by posing a “birther” conspiracy theory about President Barack Obama. He launched his political campaign by labeling Mexican immigrants “criminals” and “rapists.” He reportedly thrives on in-group competition among his staff, and since taking office has regularly vilified any person or group that he views as opposing his (immediate) agenda.

The act of sowing division is not, of course, new to politics. Trump’s public demonization of anyone he views as opposition, however, is at a scale and level of magnitude that the U.S. government has not seen in modern times. Although this strategy seems to pay short-term political dividends – as of this writing, his current approval rating among Republicans is at 84 percent (Beckwith 2018) – the long-term consequences of this approach on our nation can be catastrophic.

The study of intractable conflicts – those that endure, are highly destructive, and resist repeated good faith attempts at resolution – has taught us a great deal about the conditions conducive to such polarized forms of intransigence. Two are relevant to this discussion: political shocks and negativity dynamics (see Coleman 2011). In one analysis, 97 percent of all intractable conflicts at the international level were found to have emerged (after a delay) after some form of “political shock” destabilized the norms and habits and institutions that had maintained the previous status quo (Diehl and Goertz 2001). Donald Trump’s presidency is, among other things, a direct destabilizing hit to the status quo of U.S. norms and institutions.

The second condition associated with intractable conflicts is a high ratio of intergroup negativity to positivity, in other words, the sustained prevalence of destructive and reciprocated acts of intergroup enmity, coupled with the relative absence of constructive acts of intergroup cooperation. Because intergroup hostilities are easier to trigger, last longer, have a stronger impact on behavior, and are harder to reverse than intergroup cooperation, it is extremely hard to stop that train once it starts rolling. The current U.S. president is greasing the tracks to intractability, which will likely result in decades of costly hostilities between Trump supporters and opponents, to all of our detriment.

I had hoped to end this essay by pointing out some possible silver linings of Trump’s time in office for our field, such as the paradoxical effects of his presidency on the mobilization of social justice movements (like the Me Too movement against sexual harassment and Dreamer movements that seek citizenship for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children), on the resurgent appreciation of the vital relevance of the Fourth Estate (such as the New York Times and Washington Post) and the free flow of information, and on the wake-up call it provides to our field to pay more careful attention to the darker arts of negotiation under such conditions of winner-take-all realism. But alas, the “fierce urgency of now” requires that we attend first to the deleterious effects of this presidency to our country and our field. As Martin Luther King (1967) wrote, “We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”


Peter T. Coleman

Peter T. Coleman is the Director of ICCCR and Professor of Psychology and Education. He holds a Ph.D. and M.Phil. in Social / Organizational Psychology from Teachers College, Columbia University and a B.A. in Communications from the University of Iowa. He has conducted research on social entitivity processes (ingroup/outgroup formation),… MORE >

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