Psychology of the Trump Supporter…

I have to be honest, listening to Donald Trump’s speeches doesn’t exactly leave me with a warm fuzzy feeling inside.  However, since I live in the Midwest and come from a very conservative family, ignoring his rhetoric is impossible.  As the political minority, I find myself doing a lot of tongue biting.  On occasion, when I feel the need to speak my mind, I struggle.  It’s as if a I’m trying to bridge a divisive cultural gap.  The experience is much like traveling to another country where you don’t speak the language well.  Culture shock sets in as you realize much of what you’re intending to say gets lost in the translation.  For this reason, I’m hoping to better understand the psychology of the Trump supporter.  What do they see that I’m not???

To answer this question, I decided to do some random googling one late sleepless night.  What follows is a synopsis of what I’ve learned:

FIRST, a few introductory comments…

When comparing my own opinions to the rhetoric of the typical Trump supporter, I find differences in temperament-based preferences and moral perspectives.   Since I was raised in a very diverse environment, (culturally, socioeconomically, politically and racially), differences such as these are “normal”.  They are not a source of disharmony or strife by any means.  I have learned three lessons from this:

  1. FIRSTLY, the advice of John Malkovich on acting rings true here.  You can’t truly understand a someone until you suspend all judgment.  As it applies life, this means engaging in an empathetic listening that involves suspending my own view of life for another one.  What is it truly like to walk in those shoes???
  2. SECONDLY, an essential counterpoint to empathetic listening is remaining true to my own personal values. This has meant accepting that reality is ultimately a subjective creation relevant to my own life experiences.  I acknowledge that others’ may not validate or accept my perspective.  I am at peace with this and have come to realize serenity comes through being secure with who I am and what I stand for.
  3. THIRDLY, A Hegelian dialectic is always useful to resolve these competing perspectives.  According to Hegel’s dialectical theory, when one perspective (i.e. thesis) meets with a competing viewpoint (i.e. antithesis), and when they are merged together, you have a higher level of understanding (i.e. synthesis).  

In moving forward in the creation of this post, these life lessons exist as a guide.  I am willing to entertain perspectives other than my own but still hold onto my own system of beliefs.  Social reality is complex multifaceted and ever-changing.   The personal benefit of this exercise, is in that it can help me understand a facet, very different from my own lived perspective.

A “Cult of Personality”

It is important to note that Trump’s views on matters have been far from one-sided. His political beliefs and actions, over the years, fall all over the ideological map.  As many diehard conservatives have noted: “he’s like all the others, riding somewhere in the middle”.  With this in mind, I’ve asked what is the nature of his appeal is then?  Many Trump fans I’ve talked with explain his appeal simply in the following statements: “he tells it like he is”, or “he doesn’t take shit from anyone”.   As I interpret it, comments like this reflect a “cult of personality” mindset (Ben-Ghiat, 2016; Tracinski, 2015).  A cult of personality, might be conveniently defined as: “a system in which a leader is able to control a group of people through the sheer force of his or her personality and is often portrayed as a god-like figure” (rationalwiki.org, n.d.).  There are two critical psychological components underlying this insight one pertains to the trump supporter, and the other to Donald himself.  As it pertains to a cult-of-personality figure, Ben-Ghiat (2016) notes the following as essential characteristics:

“the leader has to embody the people but also stand above them. He must appear ordinary, to allow people to relate to him. And yet he must also be seen as extraordinary, so that people will grant him permission to be the arbiter of their individual and national destiny” (Ben-Ghiat, 2016).

Throughout Donald Trump’s own unique rhetoric, several unique traits can be observed: a complete disregard for the standards of political correctness and narcissistic ego.  I find it fascinating how politically divisive the responses are to these traits.  While I find him to be a disrespectful bully, Trump supports find him “refreshing”.  I’m perplexed by this.  In an attempt to understand how someone might find Trump’s rhetoric “refreshing”, I found the following commentary on Trump’s perplexing Cult-of-Personality appeal:

“People are projecting onto Trump what they want to see. They are pouring into him their fantasies about what could be accomplished by a strong leader who doesn’t care about making people angry. But that’s a dangerous fantasy to indulge” (Tracinski, 2015).

These observations about Trump and his supporters, provide me a bit more clarity on the nature of his perplexing appeal. Still, I’m left with more questions.  What specific characteristics about Trump standout in the minds of his fans, as most appealing, as source of projective fantasy?  What temperament based-characteristics in the Trump Supporter do I not yet understand as an explanation for their response?  What follows are more interesting insights to shed more light on matters:

Trump’s Extreme Narcissism

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual describes narcissistic personality disorder as follows

“A pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy…as indicated by…the following: …sense of self-importance…sense of entitlement…fantasies of unlimited success…[and requiring] excessive admiration” (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).

While a formal diagnosis cannot every be made without seeking the help of a mental health professional, many of Trump’s display’s reflect extreme narcissistic personality traits.  As the video above notes, narcissists see the world in terms of winners and losers.  As a result of this black and white thinking, a compulsive need to win exists over “the losers”.  This compulsive need is a way of reflecting one’s own personal insecurities.  Joseph Burgo, Phd, (psychotherapist and author of the book: (THE NARCISSIST YOU KNOW: Defending Yourself Against Extreme Narcissists in an All-About-Me Age), notes Donald’s extreme narcissism, is a large part of his appeal to populist voters (Burgo, 2015). In particular, Donald Trump’s appeal pertains to a key defense mechanism which he displays as an extreme narcissist. Underlying a need to avoid one’s personal insecurities, is a compulsive desire to win in order defend his inflated sense of self through: “righteous indignation, blame, and contempt” (Burgo, 2015).  Trump’s rhetoric models “a simplistic way to vanquish self-doubt and defend oneself against existential anxiety” (Burgo, 2015).  This insight is helpful in shedding light on the personality traits underlying Trump’s cult-of-personality appeal.  Still there is much more to be said about the Trump supporter to better understand this perspective.

An Anti-P.C. Mentality

Fear of The Unknown….

An interesting three-part series of articles on the psychology of trump supports can be found at Scientific American’s website titled “Decoding Trump Mania the Psychological Allure of hating Political Correctness”  – by Melanie Tannenbaum.  As Tannenbaum (2015), notes, there is no U.S. president in recent history who is more anti-P.C. as a”blatant racist…[and] sexist”.  Still, its surprising to note the divisiveness of reactions to his inflammatory remarks.  There are those like me who find them very distasteful and off-putting (to say the least). His fans, on the other hand appreciate, his rhetoric as “honest”.  What is meant by this?  Tannenbaum (2015), first theorizes that trump supporters display a low temperament-based preference for ambiguity and uncertainty:

“Did you have one friend who embraced that sense of uncertainty, viewing it with a sense of enthusiasm and thrill, excited about the prospect of embarking on an unknown adventure? Did you have another friend who hated every moment of not knowing what would come next, feeling anxious and uneasy until the minute that every single detail of his/her plan had fallen into a definite, guaranteed place?” (Tannenbaum, 2015)

Uncertainty is associated with the unknown.  For those with low tolerance to such things, a greater degree of anxiety is produced.   Knowing where he stands provides a bit of relief for those with a “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” mentality, common amongst ultra-conservaties (Tannenbaum, 2015).  Still, the perplexing perception that Trump is a “straight shooter” is perplexing, given his “winning at all costs” mentality?  What else can be said about this???….

Misperception of Non-Normative Statements….

In part two of her article series, Tannenbaum, (2015) cites research on the misperception of non-normative statements:

“When people say things that are non-normative, unexpected, or non-self-serving, those things are seen as more likely to be true, and outside observers are more likely to think they have a good chance of really knowing the authentic, deep-down, true personality of the person saying them. (Tannenbaum, 2015)”

In other words, if somebody is speaking off-the-cuff in an unedited fashion and saying what is on his mind without thinking, he is at least perceived as honest.  This is despite the fact that his statements are off-putting, and that he is a flip-flopper on many issues…

Pluralistic Ignorance

Tannenbaum, (2015) completes her three part series by commenting on the distaste of political correctness common amongst Trump supporters.  A quick online search for a definition of this “Political Correctness” yields the following:

“agreeing with the idea that people should be careful to not use language or behave in a way that could offend a particular group of people…conforming to a belief that language and practices which could offend political sensibilities (as in matters of sex or race) should be eliminated…” (Politically Correct, n.d.)

What I find most interesting about Tannenbaum’s (2015) article, are her observations on this concept and the varied responses to it.  In particular she states:  “If you’re conservative, you may believe that the PC movement is a harmful push to censor free speech and limit the expression of free ideas: (Tannenbaum, 2013).    Indeed our culture is very “pro-P.C”.  It is useful to consider the two sides of the coin on this issue of political correctness.  For example, I value the ideals of equality, empathy and inclusiveness.  I believe it is important to show respect of others and avoid utilizing rhetoric that can be perceived as disrespectful.  Consequently, I find Trump’s rhetoric distasteful.  In contrast to this vantage point, my husband might bring up the idea of pluralistic ignorance.  This concept is best summarized in the fairy tale “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and can be defined conveniently as “the bullshit of the many”.  It is a dangerous byproduct of a culture which is too politically correct.  My husband is more open to hearing rhetoric like Trump’s because failing to question conventional thinking is dangerous.  In conclusion, underlying an anti-p.c. mentality in the Trump fan, is a distaste for pluralistic ignorance, ambiguity, and misinterpretation of non-normative statements.  

Moral Taste Receptors

One final article worth mention comes from vox.com, titled: “Donald Trump supporters think about morality differently than other voters. Here’s how.” (Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  In this article, the authors apply insights from Moral Foundations Theory to better understand the unique perspective of Trump Supporters.  Moral Foundations Theory states the following:

“our moral judgments verbalize unconscious and automatic intuitions that are only justified post hoc vis-a`-vis others…these “intuitions” reflect biologically prewired sensitivities regarding certain events in human social life” (Musschenga, 2013, p331).

Additionally, Moral Foundations Theory also describes six moral preferences or “moral taste receptors” (Elkins & Haidt, 2016), including:  (1) Care/Harm – (i.e compassion for others); (2) Fairness/Cheating (i.e. monitoring equity & balance); (3) Liberty/Oppression – (i.e restrictions of choice); (4) Authority – (i.e. hierarcy & order); (5) Loyalty – (i.e. us vs. them mentality); (6) Sanctity/Degradation – (i.e. elevate the “good” from harm of daily profanities).  In a public opinion poll including 2000 participants, the authors of this article found firstly, that Trump indeed rank as a moderate on a scale of 1-5 with 1 being very liberal and 5 being very conservative, (Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  While I won’t delve into these results in detail, I found the following very interesting….

Preference for Care/Harm

A preference for Care/Harm can be defined as a “compassion for those who are vulnerable or suffering” (Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  It’s not surprising to note that in this poll, the democratic candidates ranked high in a preference for care and harm.  In contrast, republican candidates – and Trump in particular all had negative scores, indicating that this consideration was a low priority.  This is very much in sync with what I notice as a key difference between my own political values and those of my conservative family members.  The idea of the “bleeding-heart liberal” is often thrown around when I discuss beliefs pertaining to this value of care and empathy.  In contrast, I don’t understand why Trump Supporters aren’t offended by his comments.

Loyalty, Authority, & Sanctity

A preference for Authority can be defined a “value order and hierarchy; we dislike those who undermine legitimate authority and sow chaos” (Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  In contrast, a preference for loyalty is associated with an “us vs. them” mentality.  Finally, a preference for sanctity pertains to “a sense that some things are elevated and pure and must be kept protected from the degradation and profanity of everyday life”(Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  So how do my beliefs on these issues compare to the typical Trump Supporter?  I found the answer to this question quite intriguing….

Democrats scored low on all three factors.  This reflects my own political values as well.  A low desire for authority indicates an openness to change and a progressive belief system.  A low preference for loyalty indicates inclusivity and multiculturalism as personal ideals.  Finally, the notion of sanctity reminds me of a religious ideal that divides the world into the pure vs. profane.  As a “spiritual but not religious” agnostic, I have a strong distaste for this notion.

In contrast, Donald Trump scores high on Authority, Loyalty, & Sanctity.  A preference for order and status quo reflects a dislike for ambiguity as discussed earlier (Tannenbaum, 2015).  This “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it mentality”, is often associated with an idyllic perception of “the way things were”(Tannenbaum, 2015).  The slogan “Make America Great Again”, summarizes this preference ideally. The idea of loyalty, can be linked to feelings of patriotism and a heightened fear of terrorism.  Finally, the idea of sanctity, can be linked to values such as an anti-abortion stance and view favoring “traditional marriage”, (both of which I happen to disagree with).

Preference for Fairness:

A preference for fairness can be defined as a desire to “constantly monitor whether people are getting what they deserve, whether things are balanced. We shun or punish cheaters” (Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  The authors also note that those who prefer fairness believe: “people who produce more should be rewarded more than those who just tried hard” (Elkins & Haidt, 2016).  This ideal is helpful in explaining the perplexing fact that lower-income conservatives support the “trickle-down” notion of welfare for the rich.  When discussing this idea with Trump Supporters, I hear an espousal of “working class” values.  The idea of not working for what you get is distasteful.  This ideal presupposes any other thought process that might allow one to consider the complex ramifications of a “trickle-down” economic plan…

Conclusions…

One of my first jobs out of college was working for a law firm as a “jack-of-all-trades”.  I answered the phones, prepared documents, and even did billing.  Several of the lawyers in this firm had practices focusing specifically on family law.  As a result, I found myself in the middle of many contentious divorces.   Interestingly, much of the political rhetoric today mirrors the arguments of two bitter exes fighting for custody of the house or division of assets.  The idea of “winning at all costs” (Burgo, 2015), takes presidence over any other considerations.  As I observed, during custody cases, the children were left in the middle as the ones with the greatest losses to bear.  The parents are busy trying to “get one over” on the other while the child is left in the middle, to lose no matter what the outcome.  Its in this respect that Trump is providing us a public service:

“How could a crass, bigoted bully with a narcissistic-personality disorder and policy views bordering on gibberish ‘defy political gravity,’ dominate the national stage…In the short time since Trump declared his candidacy, he has performed a public service by exposing…the posturings of both the Republicans and the Democrats and the foolishness…of…the political culture they share” (Frank, 2015)

References

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Ben-Ghiat, Ruth (2016, January, 15).  Donald Trump’s cult of personality.  Retrieved from:  http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ruth-benghiat/donald-trumps-cult-of-per_b_8992650.html
Burgo J., Phd. (2015, August, 14) The populist appeal of Trump’s narcissism. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shame/201508/the-populist-appeal-trumps-narcissism
Elkins, E & Haidt, J (2016, February, 5). Donald Trump supporters think about morality differently than other voters. Here’s how. Retrieved from: http://www.vox.com/2016/2/5/10918164/donald-trump-morality
Frank, R. (2015, September, 20).  The Importance of Donald Trump.  Retrieved from:  http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/09/frank-rich-in-praise-of-donald-trump.html#
Manheim, F.T. (2016). Trump cards II: Significancr of the Donsld’s rise, his audacious two-layered campaign, and his Achilles’s heels.  Retrieved from:  http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2729989
Musschenga, B. (2013). The promises of moral foundations theory. Journal of Moral Education, 42(3), 330-345.
Politically correct. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/politically correct
Rationalwiki.org (n.d.) Personality Cult. Retrieved from:  http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/Personality_cult
Rich, F. (2015, September 20) Donald Trump is saving our democracy.  Retrieved from:  http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/09/frank-rich-in-praise-of-donald-trump.html
Tanenbaum (2015, August, 15). Decoding Trump-Mania: The psychological allure of hating political correctness, Part 1-3. Retrieved from: http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/psysociety/decoding-trump-mania-the-psychological-allure-of-hating-political-correctness-part-1/
Tracinski, P. (2015, August, 15). Donald Trump’s paradoxical cult of personality.  Retrieved from:  http://thefederalist.com/2015/08/11/donald-trumps-paradoxical-cult-of-personality/

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