At the end of our first day of supervision, I asked my doctoral students in professional psychology what they thought of “The Donald” being an actual contender for the Presidency of the United States. There was a general look of befuddlement and confusion. “I really am having a hard time believing it,” said one student. “I heard it might be the result of a conspiracy,” said another. “I must live in a bubble,” a third student said and proceeded to articulate why she had a hard time believing that there were so many people who could support such a “racist” and “sexist” candidate. Others commented that he seemed so shallow and obnoxious, and wondered how the whole thing was possible.
Psychologists are, by and large, deeply aligned with a modern progressive left worldview, which explains their attitudes about Trump. But I was trying to instill in them the point that one of our roles as psychologists is (or should be) to read psychological dynamics in social movements. In the context of that point, I commented that Trump’s candidacy was a “wonderful thing to look at.” For a brief moment I received some quizzical looks, as my students thought I meant his rising status was a wonderful thing for the country. I quickly corrected them by clarifying that it was a wonderful thing to analyze from a psycho-sociological lens, because it was revealing of so many key dynamics regarding the current state of our country. I brought my concerns about his candidacy home by telling my students (with tongue firmly in cheek), that I advise all my patients that, when things are complicated and difficult and they are feeling vulnerable (as is the current state of our country and the world at large), my strong professional recommendation is to put all your trust in an egotistical blowhard who never apologizes or reflects and is certain that he is right about everything he says and does. After all, we know from our clinical work that submitting to such people almost always guarantees long-term positive outcomes!
With that point made, let’s shift to analyzing the dynamics here. What are the social and psychological forces that are driving Trump’s popularity? My basic analysis is that Trump embodies a narcissistic fantasy and defense against anxiety that is present in Traditional Christian White Males (TCWM), especially those who are disaffected (i.e., who have lower than average socio-economic status). Let me break this analysis apart, so we can clearly see the parts and how they are interacting to give rise to the Trump political phenomenon.
First, let’s start with understanding why there is a backdrop of anxiety associated with TCWM. A central root of this dynamic can be located in the loss of power and prestige associated with Traditional Christian White Maleness/Masculinity. Since the 1960s, the United States has experienced a sea change in power and dominance, especially at the socio-cultural normative level (i.e., what is socially justifiable). Throughout the history of our nation (and Western Europe more broadly), the power structures have been dominated by Traditional Heterosexual Christian White Males, and this dominance was legitimized with explicit justification. This fact is particularly salient for me because I've just finished listening to the excellent book Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution by Joseph Ellis. Consider the point he makes early in the book which is that, for the Founding Fathers, the idea of “equality” between the races or sexes was such an anathema as to not even be worthy of serious consideration.
But (thankfully) the (normative) hegemony of TCWMs has been chipped away, especially over the past 50 years, from the Civil Rights movements in the 60s to the Feminist movement in the 70s to the GLBT and secular/nonreligious movements of today. Although these forces have moved our society toward justice, it nevertheless is the case that they have come with a loss of relative power and prestige for TCWMs, which likely fosters anxiety and resentment especially in those who are disaffected.
In addition, I think a strong case can be made that there are many pockets in the academic progressive left that “overshoot” with their emphasis on white male patriarchy and seem to be so concerned with the history of White Male Power as to be blind to virtually everything else (see here for one example of a conservative critique). Certainly, it has been my experience more than once in an academic multicultural training session or diversity workshop that the issues weren’t really so much about diversity or mutual empowerment, but were really more about White privilege, blame and guilt and justifying minority resentment. In short, there are aspects of the politically correct progressive left that, at least in my opinion, understandably raise the ire of disaffected TWCM.
There are other forces driving the unrest as well. Males are not achieving nearly as well as females across a wide variety of educational measures, including for example, having a notably higher rate of dropping out of high school and notably lower rate of graduating from college (see here for a larger analysis of this). In addition, although our economy has definitely picked up over the past few years, we are coming through one of the worst slumps ever for lower to middle income male workers. Moreover, there is a good evidence for high degrees of economic uncertainty, which generate heightened levels of insecurity, perhaps especially associated with the TCWM demographic. Finally, as traditional roles around gender and sexuality continue to become more amorphous and fluid, this likely creates much uncertainty for many regarding how to be a “man” (see here). (Interestingly, there is some evidence that biological changes are taking place, as sperm levels and perhaps testosterone levels have dropped as well).
What is the evidence that Trump matches up with this demographic of disaffected TWCM and for the reasons I note? Well, first there is the basic voting pattern data (see here and here). In short, at the aggregate polling level Trump is appealing to angry White men, who have lower than average socio-economic status. A second feature of Trump’s rise that lends credibility to this analysis is that his candidacy is not really driven by any clear ideology because, in fact, Trump is all over the ideological/political map. It is much better described as a cult of personality. That is, it is what Trump’s personality symbolizes that drives his current base.
What, exactly, is it about his personality that is so appealing to some (while being so abhorrent to others)? His unabashed egoism and narcissism, coupled with his success. Trump unapologetically views the world through a performance hierarchy. In the real world (or at least what Trump says is the real world), you either get the job done or you don’t. His wealth and influence is evidence that he gets things done. Why is he a winner? Because he is better than everyone else. And his intellect, charm and grit are the reasons; others (i.e., the bimbos and losers out there) fail because they are weak and stupid. In short, Trump is completely and unapologetically defined by egotistical rankism. (See here for an analysis of why Trump's personal psychology may be so defined by power and salesmenship).
But if Trump is so clearly in the top 1% of the economic stratosphere, why would he be appealing to disaffected TCWM? Because when we rally around a candidate, we connect to them, we live vicariously through them, and they represent what we desire. In 2008, I rallied around Obama because he represented intellect, diversity, globalization, and a complete rejection of the anti-intellectual, cowboy diplomacy of “W.” Now we have Trump, who in many ways is the Anti-Obama candidate. Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” is clearly positioned against Obama as a weak leader who is, in his mind, always making concessions and apologizing for America rather than boldly advancing our exceptionalism. Arguably one of Trump’s biggest forays into politics came as he latched onto challenging Obama’s birthplace and for his incessant attacks on Obama as an “other” (i.e., not a real American Man). In fact, I think one can argue that Trump, who was a Democrat ten years ago, becomes a Republican essentially because of "identity politics" and the fact that he feels so strongly defined against Obama. All of this means that, for many, the idea of replacing Obama with a Trump would be a vindication of TWCM masculinity.
That Trump is tapping into a defensive TWCM archetype is seen in the policies he pursues, most notably his very strong anti-immigration rhetoric (i.e., illegal Mexican immigrants as "rapists") and plan to deport “aliens” who are destroying the (traditional) fabric of our society. It is also found in the way he relates to women, both in terms of his blatant emphasis on their appearance and his attacks against them if they challenge his archetypal male dominance (see, e.g., Kelly, Meghan).
Although Trump offers elements of “traditional” masculinity that some long for at a primal level, it is, of course, not correct to say that Trump is traditional in the normal, conservative sense of the word. Indeed, he is arguably more radical than anything else. It is well-known he is not exactly celebrated by the established standard bearers of the Republican Party. George Will’s characterization of him is an excellent example:
Every sulfurous belch from the molten interior of the volcanic Trump phenomenon injures the chances of a Republican presidency.
But the fact that Trump is outside the traditional political establishment plays well with disaffected TWCM because there is a huge general dissatisfaction with government (count me among those who are dissatisfied and consider the rise of the “Bern” on the left as additional evidence of the power of this dissatisfaction). Moreover, much of that dissatisfaction is felt in the dramatic rise in income inequality and wealth in the US, and is seen by many as a result of crony capitalism found in the Washington-Wall Street embrace. In this regard, the fact that Trump is a Washington outsider who does not appear beholden to anyone and acts like a bully gives the disaffected the dream that the Washington-Wall Street elites might be shaken up by a Trump presidency.
Finally, Trump’s narcissism plays right into these dynamics. By identifying with someone who has enormous money, power, influence, access to beautiful women and other powerful people and who unabashedly promotes it as a function of his personal attributes and skill, individuals who are feeling threatened and who long for that sort of power can vicariously connect with the life Trump leads via supporting him. The bottom line is that many TWCM are anxious and disappointed about their lives and the direction the country is taking and see additional threats in a multicultural diverse world. As such, there is a yearning to “the good old days” when American White Males embraced their exceptionalism and power and did not have to be shy about being “better”. They were better because they had more power, which is exactly the kind of logic that Trump symbolizes and endorses.
Despite his strong lead in the polls and surprising staying power, I still can’t believe that Trump will get the Republican Party nomination and it is essentially inconceivable that he will become the actual President, which, IMO, would be an unequivocal disaster in too many ways to count. But it is clear that he is tapping into profound dynamics that relate deeply to our country’s confused and conflicted state. I hope we can use the Trump phenomenon to "diagnose" these dynamics and then, with awareness, begin to develop educational and political systems and movements that constructively address them rather than actually attempt to live out a pathological narcissistic fantasy at the social systems level.