A neuroscientist explains how — and why — Donald Trump is only pretending to be a bigot
Republican presidential candidate businessman Donald Trump speaks at the Republican U.S. presidential candidates debate sponsored by CBS News and the Republican National Committee in Greenville, South Carolina February 13, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The thought of a world in which Donald Trump is president feels more like an apocalyptic nightmare to most reasonable Americans. His bigoted statements regarding Mexican immigrants and Muslims, as well as his hotheaded temper, make him appear especially dangerous for international relations. But given certain evidence, one must wonder whether some of Trump’s behavior is part of a strange but strategic charade designed only to win him the Republican nomination. And if this is the case, perhaps we should be more fearful of a Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio presidency.

Thanks in large part to Donald Trump’s vicious Republican rivals, his liberal history is now almost common knowledge. For example, in the past Trump was very vocal about his pro-choice position and support for Planned Parenthood—an organization loathed by conservatives. In fact, in a 1999 interview for NBC’s Meet The Press, Trump specifically said, “I am pro-choice in every respect.” In the same year, Trump told Larry King that he was “very liberal when it comes to healthcare,” and the universal healthcare he was in favor of was not unlike Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act. Around that time, he also publicly expressed support for legalizing drugs and taxing the wealthy. There is no doubt that the old Donald Trump sounds like a run-of-the-mill liberal. He was even registered as a Democrat in 2001 and remained that way for years. It’s really hard to imagine that someone like Trump, who is so utterly confident in everything he says and does, would do a complete 180 on such major issues. So if we are to assume that he hasn’t truly changed his beliefs in such a drastic manner, why might he be pretending that he did?

One thing we know about Donald Trump is that he loves to win. He does not at all try to hide this fact either. Trump was probably smart enough to know that if he wanted to have any sort of serious shot at becoming president in a short amount of time, he wouldn’t be able to do it as a democrat. This is because the average democrat tends to be well educated, and their judgment—relatively speaking at least—is based on rationality and reason. Conservatives, on the other hand, take pride in the fact that they often act according to gut instinct, and not measured, logical reasoning. And since their ideology is fundamentally opposed to change of any type, they live in a constant state of fear, which makes them easier to be manipulated. Trump likely knew that if he had any chance of becoming a party’s nominee, it would have to be as a republican. He could get conservatives riled up with emotionally charged rhetoric that played to some of their biggest fears. And that’s what he has done by proposing to ban all Muslims from entering the country and to build a wall that keeps out Mexicans. The America that conservatives know and love is white and Christian, and anything that threatens that terrifies many of them.

Another possible reason why Trump has made such unapologetically bigoted statements could be because they are outrageous enough to take the focus away from his liberal past. His strategy may have been to come out as so right wing that his previous left-leaning positions would not become the main story, and that certainly seems to be pretty much what has happened. To most Americans, Trump is the guy who wants to ban Muslims and keep out immigrants—not the man who used to be pro-choice and a vocal supporter of the Clintons.

Another reason for Trump to make such attention-grabbing bigoted statements is because it allows him to completely dominate the 24-hour news cycle. He has spent next to nothing on campaigning compared to the other candidates because everything that comes out of his mouth turns into a headline. Earlier this month, Trump spent a meager $3.7 million on ads in New Hampshire while Jeb Bush spent a whopping $36.1 million—and Trump still crushed Bush and the other candidates in votes. Donald is smart enough to know that as a skilled entertainer who relies on charm and stage antics, he must do whatever is necessary to stay in the spotlight.

So if the theory is that Trump is just pretending to be a bigot to get votes from a bigoted constituency, where is the proof that he doesn’t truly feel that way? Well, first of all let’s remember that a decade ago he was a liberal. Democratic policies, generally speaking, favor things like a path toward citizenship for illegal immigrants and a redistribution of wealth, which often benefits minorities. If Trump always had such a strong aversion to foreigners, it seems unlikely that he would have ever been a democrat and a liberal.

In a ridiculous manner, Donald seems to try to make up for his negative statements about immigrants by constantly repeating statements about how much he loves the Mexican people, and how great of a relationship he has with them. He even said, “Their leaders are smarter and their negotiators are much tougher.” With this type of behavior, are we really supposed to take anything this guy says seriously? He’s putting on a show. He’ll say anything that wins him the nomination. But once he’s in the general race it is very likely that he’d significantly shift towards the center, because winning requires it. As such, a President Trump might look a lot different than the Trump we see today.

On the other hand, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are genuine Bible-thumping conservatives with logic that is guided by a supernatural delusion. Although we tend to think of creepy-pastor-looking Ted Cruz as being the most extreme conservative, Marco Rubio proves to be a serious contender when he states that God’s rules should come before Government’s. "We are clearly called in the Bible to adhere to our civil authorities — but that conflicts with, also, our requirement to adhere to God's rules. So when those two come into conflict, God's rules always win." Now that is a whole other brand of crazy that might make Trump look reasonable by comparison.

It is also likely that Cruz and Rubio would do much more to secure the immensely frustrating gridlock in Congress that is obstructing anything from being accomplished. Even classic liberal president Jimmy Carter recently said that he’d prefer Trump to Cruz as president because he was more “malleable”.

And things just got a lot more interesting during the last Republican debate. When Cruz attacked Trump for being in support of Planned Parenthood, Donald actually gave the organization praise for their women’s health efforts—something you’d never expect from a diehard conservative. He then went on to fiercely accuse the Bush Administration of lying about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify the invasion. Is Trump starting to rear his liberal head now that he thinks his voters are too loyal to ever leave him?

I am not at all suggesting a Trump presidency would be a good thing. First of all, pretending to be a bigot may be just as despicable as having always been one. Also, he’s a narcissist who can’t take criticism and absolutely hates to be disrespected or treated unfairly. How do we expect him to respond to openly anti-American nations like Iran and North Korea? At best, he’d be horrible for foreign policy, and at worst, his hot headedness could lead us into all out war.

But it is likely that Cruz or Rubio would be just as bad, if not worse for foreign relations, especially with Muslim countries. They are fundamentalists themselves who believe that the U.S. should be a Christian nation that first and foremost obeys “God’s rules”. There is no doubt that on social issues, they would set us back ages. We already know that Trump isn’t an extreme Christian since he has stated that he never asks for forgiveness because he “doesn’t do anything wrong.”

As scary as a Trump presidency sounds, it would likely not be half as bad as if Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio were our nation’s leader. Donald likes to win and he likes to make deals. This means he’d at least be somewhat willing to compromise in Washington. With this in mind, he could also potentially be better at diplomacy than we might expect. As hard as this is to say, liberals should hope that Trump wins the Republican nominee. Not only because he’s a much better option than crazy Christian Cruz and the talking point-repeating robot Rubio—but because he’ll be easier for Clinton or Sanders to beat than a more level-headed establishment Republican like Jeb Bush or John Kasich.

This is not at all a plea for people to like Donald Trump. It is just a request that you hate him a little less than his current main republican rivals.

Bobby Azarian is a cognitive neuroscientist at George Mason University. His work has been published in journals like Cognition & Emotion and Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, and he has written for sites like Slate, The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, and Scientific American. He also runs the website Science Is Sexy. Follow him @BobbyAzarian.