I used to like Donald Trump back in the day when he was just a pompous bully on his TV shows. Whether it was the megalomaniac boss on ‘The Apprentice’ or the sexist judge in his beauty pageants, there was something entertaining about his undertones of misogynistic narcissism. Because it was just that: entertainment.
Who really believed he would actually be a presidential candidate? And who really believed that so many would be taking him so seriously?
It’s true that there has always been something vaguely familiar about Trump to a lot of people in the US. Like the drunken uncle at Christmastime or the politically incorrect grandfather who blurts out racial slurs while everyone shakes their head and brushes it off. “Oh, Grandpa.”
With his bombastic ways and constant self aggrandizing – erecting ever more towers dedicated to his hard earned money – he somehow represented a farcical piece of the American bedrock. A self-made man who was proud to be an offensive, show-off. A lot of people had some respect for that.
But when he started saying and doing these things as a presidential candidate and not as an entertainer, the tides began to turn. And the questions kept coming from all over the world. What are we missing here?
My co-author, Danish psychotherapist Iben Sandahl and I, are in a constant dialogue about the cultural differences between Danes and Americans and how they are raised. It suddenly struck me that Trump was an excellent example of the authoritarian parenting style we talk about at length in ‘The Danish Way of Parenting’.
Authoritarian parents are high in control and low in responsiveness. Children are not encouraged to ask why. They are encouraged to do as they are told. This style of parenting is fairly prevalent throughout the US and other parts of the world. There are many different styles of parenting of course, but this one is a big one.
It’s the “my way or the highway” approach. The “because I said so”, heavy-handed, one-sided “you listen to me, get your act together and toughen up” style. The problem with this style is that it leaves children alone to regulate their emotions and, when coupled with shame and blame, can be confusing and upsetting. If you are raised this way, however, it becomes second nature to hear this kind of rhetoric.
Is it possible that so many of Trump’s supporters have grown up in households with this kind of rhetoric from their own parents? Could that be one explanation why he is acceptable to so many? That he somehow feels familiar?
Instead of recoiling from the blatant hypocrisy and bigotry, perhaps some people are drawn to him for the simple reason that he makes them feel a bit like home? It seems like a question worth asking if we want to understand what’s going on.
Most people are pretty familiar by now with some of Trump’s classic quotes calling Mexicans rapists and drug dealers and his plans to ban all Muslims from the US.
But in a recent interview regarding his Muslim comments with Barbara Walters on ABC Donald Trump said the US “needs toughness”.
“Somebody in this country has to say what’s right,” he said – one of the many times in which he has spoken about America as if it is a child he is going to whip into shape.
We address this authoritarian style in our book because we wanted to point out how different it is to the Danish style of parenting, which much more closely resembles the authoritative approach.
Although those words sound similar, they are in fact very different. In the authoritative style, parents are very responsive to their children. They have high expectations but they use a lot more explaining and answer their children’s questions about the rules. They don’t use fear as a tactic but seek connecting rather than controlling to get results. They are open to learning as well so they don’t have to be right all the time. When you don’t govern with fear but with respect, it raises a very different kind of adult who is more open to discussion, listening and compromising.
One of our hopes in writing ‘The Danish Way of Parenting’ was that maybe, just maybe, some of those parents who were raised in a Trump-like household might want to do things differently with their own kids. That while steeped in oxytocin and brimming with hope and love as their new baby arrives, people may be in a place to open their minds to another way. One in which we listen a little more to our kids, seek to be a little less close-minded and want more connection and understanding rather than fear and control.
The hope is that this shift might Trump future Donalds from having such a big platform on America’s, and indeed, the world’s political stage next time around. One can always hope.
Jessica Alexander is an American author who co-wrote 'The Danish Way of Parenting: A Guide to Raising the Happiest Kids in the World'. She has been married to a Dane for over 13 years and has always been fascinated by cultural differences. She speaks four languages and currently lives in Rome with her husband and two children. Her book can be purchased via Amazon and Saxo.