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The 6 Bases of Power: How Powerful Is Trump?

The six bases of power are discussed using the example of Donald Trump.

DaveDavidsoncom/Pixabay
Source: DaveDavidsoncom/Pixabay

Power (e.g., empowerment, powerlessness) is an important topic of study in human sciences. In this post, I discuss power using the example of Donald Trump. From becoming US president despite lacking political experience and facing much opposition, to galvanizing his base and supporters into action even late in his presidency (e.g., storming the Capitol Hill), Trump appears to be a very powerful man.

Indeed, he was ranked as the second most powerful person in 2016 (and the third in 2018), according to the Forbes list of “The World’s Most Powerful People.”

Given Trump’s power and continued popularity (receiving 74 million votes in the US general election), I would like to use Trump as an example to discuss social power in this article.

Social power is defined as having the ability or potential to exert social influence. For example, Keltner and colleagues define social power as “an individual’s relative capacity to modify others’ states by providing or withholding resources or administering punishments” (p. 265).

Trump’s bases of power

So, what are Trump’s bases of social power?

One way to answer this question is to use the bases of power theory by French and Raven. These psychologists proposed the existence of six bases of power—coercive power, reward power, legitimate power, expert power, referent power, and informational power.

Reward power (1)

Reward power refers to the ability to reward others. To rely on reward power requires that the powerful individual occupy a high social position and have access to valued resources (e.g., money, political status).

So, does Trump use the promise of rewards frequently and effectively—to reward loyalty, benefit friends, and influence the behavior of individuals working for him?

Some evidence suggests Trump does take advantage of his position as the US president to benefit friends and allies.

But how might this change after his presidency ends?

Coercive power (2)

Coercive power refers to the use of punishment to shape behavior—to decrease unwanted behaviors or to increase the desired ones. Coercive power is more often used by individuals who are or feel powerless or not as powerful as usual in a particular situation.

To examine whether Trump relies on this base of power, we need to know how many individuals comply with Trump’s wishes only because they feel threatened by him and fear what he might do if he does not get his way.

Again, some evidence suggests Trump regularly relies on fear and threats to elicit obedience, equating power with instilling fears. He even once said, “Real power is...fear.”

Legitimate power (3)

The third base of power, called legitimate power, is more complex and refers to the legitimacy of the powerful person’s influence. In short, does the individual have the right to influence another?

As US president, for instance, Trump has considerable legitimate power over his subordinates. Since Trump’s presidency is ending, he is losing this source of legitimate power. Nevertheless, what if his followers continue to believe the election was stolen from them and Trump (not Biden) is the real US president?

Expert power (4)

Expert power relates to how knowledgeable one is (or is assumed to be) in an area of value to others.

Consider Trump’s assertion that he would make America great again (in particular, to improve the American economy). This claim relies in large part on the assumption and his claim of business expertise.

Regardless of the truth of this claim, if the public believes it (as did many who voted for him), Trump has expert power.

Referent power (5)

The fifth base of power is called referent power. Those who are likable and charismatic have referent power because people want to associate with them.

Mr. Trump’s level of referent power, then, depends on the degree to which Americans admire him, feel (or desire) a connection to him, and are devoted and loyal to him. And some experts believe Donald Trump is charismatic. Indeed, this is often the case with populist leaders.

Informational power (6)

Informational power is related to persuasion. If the information one provides is persuasive, then he or she has informational power.

Are Trump’s speeches, interviews, and tweets persuasive? By labeling sources that disagree with him as fake news, criticisms as witch hunts, and by promoting conspiracy theories, Trump sets himself up as the only true source of information about what is really going on behind closed doors in government, in the country, and around the world.

Not surprisingly, many of Trump’s social media accounts (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Twitch) have been temporarily blocked or permanently deleted, in the aftermath of the storming of the Capitol Hill.

Concluding thoughts on sources of Trump’s power

The very powerful are different from us in myriad ways; however, like us, they rely on the bases of power described above. Like Donald Trump and those topping the Forbes list of “The World’s Most Powerful People” in the last few years—e.g., Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Jeff Bezos, Pope Francis, and Bill Gates—we rely on one or more bases of social power to modify the behaviors, internal states, and/or outcomes of others.

For instance, parents rely on reward power and sometimes coercive power to influence their children, while doctors rely on their expert power to influence their patients.

Of course, compared to the average person, the most powerful individuals use more power bases, have much more resources, exert power in more situations, and influence many more people.

Knowing about the bases of power can help us overcome powerlessness and become more empowered. We need to remember social power exists in relation to others. Even the most powerful would lose much of their power without, say, folks buying their products, attending their speeches, reading their writings, believing their assertions, watching their shows, relying on their promises, and obeying their orders.

In short, it is important to acknowledge and remember our own part—our own power.

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