5 Psychological Reasons Why the 45th President Remains Popular

Parsing a larger-than-expected and passionate following.

Posted Oct 18, 2020

After the 2016 presidential election, it was widely reported that economic anxiety and job losses due to trade among working-class white Americans propelled the current president to victory. For the last four years, this media narrative has continued to prevail. However, this is not the whole story.

Indeed, research shows that white men without college degrees tend to be Donald Trump’s most ardent supporters. And yes, some workers had experienced financial setbacks, and they should be helped. However, a wider and deeper view of the data reveals a more complicated picture.

It turns out that Make America Great Again supporters actually weren’t affected by foreign trade or immigration to a greater degree than non-supporters. And, on average, they didn’t suffer from lower incomes and unemployment more than anyone else. Also remember that in 2016, overall economic conditions were already improved.

Why did Trump amass a larger following than expected? Back in 2017, Professor Thomas Pettigrew of the University of California, Santa Cruz wrote a commentary published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology, in which he elucidates five social-psychological phenomena that characterize these voters. These are factors he says drove Trump over the finish line in 2016:

1. Social Dominance Orientation (SDO)

SDO is a characteristic that reflects an individual's preference for the hierarchical organization of groups, in which dominants have power over subordinates. Those who are high on SDO don’t believe in equality within and between groups. These individuals are characteristically dominant, driven, tough-minded, ill-tempered, and power-hungry. They are motivated by self-interest and self-indulgence, in what they see as a “dog-eat-dog” world.

Trump’s SDO is easily apparent from his casual language, such as calling undocumented immigrants, an entire strata of our society, “bad hombres” and even “animals.” These characterizations reflect Trump’s worldview that whites are at the top of society, and people of color are at the bottom.

2. Authoritarianism

Authoritarianism is related to but distinct from SDO. It’s a personality orientation that takes root early in life and is characterized by an unyielding hierarchical view of the world, deference to authority, aggression towards outgroups, and an aversion to new experiences. Fear, threat, and uncertainty breed authoritarianism, and those with this orientation typically perceive the world as dangerous. Trump’s language in which he uses terms like “losers,” “complete disasters,” and “thugs” capture the authoritarian spirit.

People who are high on authoritarianism and SDO tend to identify with the political right, trends that were evident well before 2016.

3. Relative deprivation

After the 2016 election, it was widely reported that Trump supporters were impoverished, unemployed, white working-class voters without a college degree. However, Trump supporters’ annual salary hovered around $82,000, slightly more than those who voted for Clinton.

Pettigrew thus argues that Trump voters weren’t poor, but rather frustrated with their economic station. They believed that at this stage in their lives they would have achieved more than they had, and in comparison to what “less deserving groups” had achieved. This comparison is what Pettigrew calls “relative deprivation.” It is fueled by the financial stresses you would pretty much expect: the rapidly rising cost of housing, prescription drugs, and college tuition; diminished savings that may not allow the ideal retirement; and anxiety that their children may not achieve more than they have.

Pettigrew further argues that Trump “exploited” whites’ feelings of relative deprivation masterfully, making the media, immigrants, and the elites a common enemy they could rally around.

4. Prejudice

Trump voters tend to be more prejudiced against immigrants, those of racially diverse backgrounds, and outgroups at large. Trump’s prejudiced comments against BIPOC—Black, indigenous, and people of color—are legion by now. From the Central Park Five and birtherism to referring to COVID-19 as the China virus, Trump’s opinions are in contrast to the Republican Party’s more subtle nods to those who hold bigoted views, Pettigrew maintains. Trump did away with political correctness, giving a loud and proud voice to what others had expressed in private. His in-group embraced him for this.

5. Intergroup contact

According to accumulating empirical evidence, these white supporters tend to have significantly less contact with minorities by comparison to other Americans. Remarkably, the regional support increased in areas farther away from the Mexican border. Overwhelming evidence shows that intergroup contact attenuates prejudice, driving down the fear of and raising empathy for people who are different from you.

The current 45th president appears to be tapping into these same psychological phenomena in this election cycle. Will these same factors help him win in 2020? We may well have an answer in a little more than two weeks from now on Election Day.


Pettigrew, T. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 2017, Vol. 5(1), doi:10.5964/jspp.v5i1.750. Received: 2017-01-04. Accepted: 2017-02-22. Published (VoR): 2017-03-02.