Primary Concern Theory

primary concern theory

I have a model I’m using to explain how good people can support Trump. I call it the Primary Concern theory.

It’s not really a theory, just an idea. Theories need research and support.

The idea is that people can have dozens of moral alignments simultaneously, which are active at different times and are not fully known to the person.

For example, someone could be deeply Christian in many ways, but also very isolationist when it comes to immigration. But they believe cussing is fine, and even encouraged. They also have lots of Black and Asian friends. But their father was part of the Italian Pride group in town for the last 30 years. And they believe in a woman’s right to choose, but are pro-death-penalty.

Many people are like this. Some combination of conservative, progressive—open and judgemental. Maybe they harbor racist thoughts, but they don’t come into play when they’re interacting with their friends of other races. Maybe they’re deeply religious but think there’s nothing wrong with atheists. Or maybe they have many atheist and Black friends, but would never let one marry their daughter.

Each of us is multiple people, and it’s hard for anyone—even the person himself—to know exactly which of their personas is in charge at any moment.

I think the reason we’re seeing such strong Trump support is related to this. It has to do with an often unnamed and invisible Primary Concern among his supporters, which is that the country is being destroyed by the left.

This is their Primary Concern. And it’s the reason they can ignore everything else.

They may have ten other moral personas that hate Trump. They think he’s a bad husband, a bad father. A bad business person. Or maybe they think he’s too close to Russia. If you talk to enough Trump supporters—and I’ve talked to many—you won’t find too many people who think he’s great.

But the way they see it, if your house is burning down and a firefighter runs inside, carries you out on his shoulder, and your wife and kids on the other shoulder, you don’t ask him who his favorite baseball team is.

Really. I think it might be that simple, and that extreme.

  1. The country is the house
  2. It’s on fire
  3. Trump is their fireman
  4. He’s immune to criticism during a rescue attempt

This is why it’s so strange to Trump supporters when liberals talk about taxes and adultry and violating the constitution. These might seem like colossal things to people on the coasts, but they’re small things compared to losing the actual spirit of America.

In short, the Primary Concern for Trump supporters is a deep, emotional, often inarticulable, fear of loss of their country at the hands of liberals.

Many liberals feel the exact same way, but they have a different view of the house that’s burning, and they believe Trump is the arsonist, not the firefighter.

So, practically speaking, I think it’s worth searching for everyone’s Primacy Concern. That’s not a trivial thing, because like I said—they might not know themselves. And what they tell you they most care about might be misleading.

Liberals might talk about the environment, or breaking the law, or police brutality, or whatever—and maybe one of those is the main issue, but maybe it isn’t. Maybe its a feeling that America is about freedom for all, and equality, and a feeling of safety and welcome for immigrants.

Conservatives might talk about too many genders, or bathroom politics, or political correctness. But their main issue could be that they just want things to go back to what they remember, even if they can’t articulate that memory.

I think we get distracted by specific arguments—and neglect the search for the Primary Concern—at our peril. It creates dialogue that feels productive, but doesn’t actually yield anything. Because the true issue wasn’t named or addressed.

If you want to make progress with a person, or a group of people speaking as one, find out their Primary Concern. Take the time to dig for it. It might be buried. But the real conversation won’t begin until you find it.


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