Comparing Barack Obama and Donald Trump on any dimension might strike one as an exercise in the absurd. After all, the two couldn't seem more different. The first casts the image of polished eloquence, academic aloofness, and naive trust; the second exudes an air of brashness, arrogance and disdain for others. Yet, strangely enough, the sweeping success of Obama's 2008 campaign, and Trump's current buoyancy in the polls share a profound psychological commonality. Both rest on the power of emotional appeals and on the motivational dynamics of wishful thinking. Neither derives its pull from a rational deliberation of problems and solutions. Their impetus stems from a single psychological source: The audacity of the promise.
Promises hook into people's motivations. They engage our foremost wishes and desires, and guarantee their fulfillment. They tap into individuals' innermost anxieties and vow their pacification. Occasionally, fears and desires are so acute that they becloud individuals' judgment and override concerns for the Truth. When that happens, promises are king. People suspend their critical faculties and embrace the advocated position on the sheer force of wishful thinking.
In different ways, Obama's 2008 campaign and Trump's current crusade skillfully build on the awesome force of audacious promises. Their underlying strategies are simple: list the major ills that have people worried and guarantee their quick elimination, as if by a magic wand. But why are people ready to make the leap of faith with so little justification and so much at stake?
Obama's hook was the invocation of hope and instilment of a "can do" attitude in potential voters. The response was overwhelming, especially among the young, whose youthful optimism and ample energies resonated to Obama's challenge. "Yes we can," the slogan of the Obama march, was thus excitedly echoed in millions of youthful voices.
Obama's exquisite rhetoric fanned an unbridled enthusiasm for his candidacy. Professing a "limitless faith in the capacity of the American people," he claimed to be "absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless; this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal; this was the moment when we ended a war and secured our nation and restored our image as the last, best hope on Earth. This was the moment when we came together to remake this great nation so that it may always reflect our very best selves, and our highest ideals."
No matter Obama's extremely limited experience at the time, no matter his complete lack of a proven record in dealing with the supreme economic, social, and political challenges that the nation was facing; his catchy enthusiasm spread like a proverbial fire in a brush and carried him over to the presidency in an impressive electoral sweep.
Elegant rhetoric is hardly how Trump inflames people's imaginations. It is the brashness of his quips and their coarse bluntness that enthralls the crowds. Their sheer irreverence is taken as sign of authenticity, telling it like it is, no holds barred. But beyond their style, there is also their substance: far-fetched promises of staggering audacity. He vowed, for example, to "be the greatest jobs president that God ever created," have Mexico pay for a wall at the border, solve all America's security problems, defeat Islamic terrorism and stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons once and forever--all without a shred of supporting evidence for the candidate's ability to achieve these lofty objectives, barring his self-proclaimed business acumen and mastery at the "art of the deal."
Mesmerizing potential voters with audacious promises has been a key strategic feature of both the Obama and the Trump campaigns, though there is a fundamental aspect that sets them apart. Whereas Obama's campaign sought to empower his supporters by implying that they can control the shape of things to come, Trump's central message is "yes he can," conveyed by an essential "trust me" appeal and relentless chest thumping. In both cases, however, the candidates' exorbitant pledges had little to back them up, and a weak connection to reality.
As the 2016 presidential year begins to hit its stride, it is wise to take into account the strange power that audacious promises can have on our minds. We do yearn to believe such promises and wish them to be so. But rather than bending reality to desire, we should make sure to separate fact from fiction. We should lend support to a candidate--whoever she or he may be--who paints an exciting vision, but one grounded in realistic ways and means of making it happen. The stakes are too high to do otherwise.