The political strategy of Trump and his friends might be summarized as 1) divide the country into two warring sides, and 2) pose as the perfect champion of one side. As Thomas Edsall explains, this is why Trump often says things that seem pointlessly outrageous and offensive:
According to Joshua Greene, a professor of psychology at Harvard, Trump is expert at sending “signals that are music to the ears of his base,” signals that ineradicably affirm his membership in the populist right wing of the Republican Party.
Green argued in an email that when
Trump says that a judge of Mexican ancestry can’t do his job, or attacks women for their physical appearance, or makes fun of a disabled reporter, or says that there are good people on both sides of a violent neo-Nazi rally, or that Haiti is a “shithole.” or that the “Second Amendment People” can maybe do something about Hillary Clinton, Trump is very deliberately and publicly excommunicating himself from the company of liberals, even moderate ones.
In Greene’s view, Trump offers a case study in the deployment of “costly signals.”
How does it work? Greene writes:
Making oneself irredeemably unacceptable to the other tribe is equivalent to permanently binding oneself to one’s own. These comments are like gang tattoos. And in Trump’s case, it’s tattoos all over his neck and face.
At the same time, Trump’s “costly signals” make his reliability as a protector of white privilege clear.
John Tooby, a professor of anthropology at the University of California-Santa Barbara, described the signaling phenomenon in a 2017 Edge talk as an outgrowth of what he calls a “coalitional instinct.”
“To earn membership in a group,” Tooby says, “you must send signals that clearly indicate that you differentially support it, compared to rival groups.”
This, Tooby notes, encourages extremism: “Practical and functional truths are generally useless as differential signals, because any honest person might say them regardless of coalitional loyalty.” Far more effective are “unusual, exaggerated beliefs,” including “alarmism, conspiracies or hyperbolic comparisons.”
This phenomenon of “costly signalling” drives a lot of political behavior in the US right now. Many statements are made all over the place simply from a desire to show everyone where you stand in a powerful way. I think the popularity of something like QAnon is all about this, about signaling that you are such a strong Republican you will consider anything; or, on the other side, talk about Revolution.