Republicans' hedonic treadmill problem

The party's voters are hooked on the thrill of Trumpism

An elephant.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

Monday's Electoral College vote officially sealed President Trump's loss. Whatever he may say or do over the course of the next month, Trump will leave office as President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20. At least for the next four years, it's over. Trump's chaos and camp, melodrama and mendacity will finally be shut off.

And millions of his voters will be desperate to get it back. The calm, normal politics Biden has promised is exactly what they do not want — not merely because of differences of partisanship or policy but because calm and normal no longer appeal. Trumpist Republicans have a serious hedonic treadmill problem.

The hedonic treadmill is a concept from psychology. It's also called "hedonic adaptation," but the treadmill imagery is very useful for understanding how this works. The idea is a person's baseline needs for a sense of wellbeing and contentment are largely conditional. The more you have, the more you need to feel okay. As quality of life improves, our sense of what we need (as opposed to merely want) scales accordingly. The treadmill speeds up — and up and up and up.

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This is why, for example, if you move from a small apartment to a larger house, within a fairly short time you may find yourself saying something like, "I don't know how we ever managed it in that apartment. I can't imagine living with one bathroom anymore." It's why people in situations many of us find utterly miserable and untenable — like going without running water or electricity — can be really, truly content with how they live in a way we could not were we in their place. Our sense of wellbeing is scaled to what we have.

The hedonic treadmill applies beyond living spaces. My husband and I talk about it a lot because a large part of early parenting is managing your kids' treadmill. If they don't get to watch television, a book is big-time entertainment — but if video is a known option, a book becomes ho-hum. For a toddler who's had ice cream literally once in his life, a banana is mind-blowing. An apple is wild stuff! But once they know about Doritos, apples will become the boring snack whose suggestion is met with a groan.

We try to keep our twins' treadmill at a measured pace, because once the hedonic treadmill increases its speed, it's very difficult to slow. Absent a parent or other authority figure to force a slowdown, it requires considerable willpower. Either way, there's an unpleasant adjustment period. (This is why grounding works as a punishment for children and fasting is a challenging spiritual practice.) Our brains can develop contentment in conditions we perceive as worse than our old circumstances, but they fight it. If "profligate persons" could only learn "to limit their desires," said the ancient philosopher Epicurus, "they would then be filled with pleasures to overflowing on all sides and would be exempt from all pain." Alas, longing is not as "easily got rid of" as Epicurus thought.

Trump has massively accelerated the excitement treadmill in U.S. politics. There are still plenty of thoughtful, serious people on the American right. Some of them may even be interested in holding public office. But that's not what the Trumpist GOP wants anymore. They've spent five years sprinting at an ever-faster pace. The treadmill is absolutely racing now. Thoughtful is boring. Serious is a yawn. You need some thrill, some insults, some accusations. It's not enough anymore to oppose the other team because they have bad ideas. They have to be seen as evil now, straight up Satanist, cannibalistic pedophiles. Competing against "Democrats" just doesn't do it for ya once you've realized they may be dubbed "Demon-rats."

Faster, faster, faster. Screw your sensible conservative apples; gimme that Flamin' Hot Nacho Cheese Dorito politics. Gimme that "grab 'em by the pussy." Gimme that "shithole countries." Gimme that president who retweets plans to jail the governor and secretary of state of Georgia (members of his own party!) because they won't falsify election results on his behalf.

The treadmill has sped up for a subset of Trump's critics, too, those for whom being "the resistance" has become a significant part of their identities, something ever on the mind. A recent review of the new PlayStation for the gaming site Kotaku jarringly concluded with a meditation on the privilege of being able "to simply tune out the world as it burns around you" with so many Trump-lit flames. The degree of attention to Trump that produces such an end to a console review is an acceleration of the treadmill, too. It's like becoming accustomed to eating everything with hot sauce: It's painful, sure, but better hurt than bored.

All these voters could retrain their political tastes. They could practice the discipline it takes to slow the treadmill, deliberately choosing to consume more worthwhile content and follow more principled figures. That choice is necessary, because the treadmill won't decelerate on its own, and Trump will never voluntarily remove himself from the public eye. There's no external authority who can fix this treadmill problem on the public's behalf.

Unfortunately, with five weeks of the Trump presidency to go, there's no sign of a choice to slow down.

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