The Psychological Roots of Trumpism

How a natural tendency explains the appeal of the man in the Oval Office.

Posted Nov 08, 2017

Profiles of Trump voters from coal country are by now something of a genre unto themselves. They are best met with a healthy skepticism. (Must we do this again?) But that doesn’t mean they can’t be illuminating. There are profiles and then there are profiles. Sometimes people tell on themselves. Nowhere is this more evident than in Michael Kruse’s latest dispatch from Trumpland for Politico.

In the course of defending Trump against the charge that he hasn’t come through with any of his campaign promises, one diehard supporter had this to say:

“It’s not like he sleeps in till noon and goes golfing every weekend, like the last president did.”

I stopped him, informing him that, yes, Barack Obama liked golf, but Trump in fact does golf a lot, too—more, in fact.

Del Signore was surprised to hear this.

“Does he?” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

He did not linger on the topic, smiling and changing the subject …

Several of those interviewed admitted to being most irked these days by the NFL player protests of police brutality and racial inequality.

Shame on them,” Del Signore said over his alfredo. “These clowns are out there, making millions of dollars a year, and they’re using some stupid excuse that they want equality—so I’ll kneel against the flag and the national anthem?”

“You’re not a fan of equality?” I asked.

“For people who deserve it and earn it,” he said. “All my ancestors, Italian, 100-percent Italian, the Irish, Germans, Polish, whatever—they all came over here, settled in places like this, they worked hard and they earned the respect. They earned the success that they got. Some people don’t want to do that. They just want it handed to them.”

“Like NFL players?” I said.

“Well, Del Signore responded, “I hate to say what the majority of them are …” He stopped himself short of what I thought he was about to say.

Schilling and her husband, however, did not restrain themselves.

“The thing that irritates me to no end is this NFL shit,” Schilling told me in her living room. “I’m about ready to go over the top with this shit. We do not watch no NFL now.” They’re Dallas Cowboys fans. “We banned ‘em. We don’t watch it.”

Schilling looked at her husband, Dave McCabe, who’s 67 and a retired high school basketball coach. She nodded at me. “Tell him,” she said to McCabe, “what you said the NFL is …”

McCabe looked momentarily wary. He laughed a little. “I don’t remember saying that,” he said unconvincingly.

Schilling was having none of it. “You’re the one that told me, liar,” she said.

She looked at me.

The NFL?

“Niggers for life,” Schilling said.

“For life,” McCabe added.

Call it what you will (and I know what I call it). These exchanges exhibit a double standard. One president is assumed lazy, while the other gets a free pass on a failed agenda. One group of workers is looking for a handout, while the other is remembered as having clawed its way from the bottom of the heap through honest labor. In each case, the defining difference between those who get the benefit of the doubt and those who don’t is race. It’s a mark one bears for life.

Profiles from Trumpland typically begin with a survey of the desolate landscape, material and psychological. These are people living in run-down neighborhoods, with withering prospects, fighting off despair while trying to avoid the scourge of drug addiction. They’re separated from the subjects of profiles from the crack era by geography, sure, but also by race. And that gives the demographic du jour one more tool in their kit. They can feel better about their situation, not because they’re doing better in any tangible sense, but because they’re not like them.

They’re not NFL.

There’s nothing surprising about this. The tendency to raise one’s self-esteem by drawing comparisons with less fortunate others forms the core tenet of Downward Comparison Theory, a view laid out by Thomas A. Wills in 1981. The basic idea is that human beings can feel better about themselves by noticing that others are faring worse. Sometimes we seek out comparisons, looking for less fortunate others, or even knocking them down a peg, in order to feel better about ourselves. Other times the comparisons come to us, and we feel better just by noticing the other’s plight.

The theory has empirical backing. One famous example focuses on breast cancer patients. Even though the media most often presented them with examples of patients who beat the odds, the patients in the study tended to compare themselves with less fortunate others. They raised their self-esteem by focusing on those who were not doing as well as they were.

One key component of the theory is that we are prone to downward comparisons when we fall on hard times. Downward Comparison Theory would seem to predict that proud coal miners in a once-thriving town now a fraction of its former size and clout would gravitate towards comparisons with those beneath them. Perhaps there’s no one lower on the economic totem pole. So they look elsewhere. Pro football players may have bigger paychecks, but the majority of them are still NFL.

A large part of Trump’s appeal seems to center on race. Election data bore this out. And it appears no less true one year out. He hasn’t brought back jobs, at least not in large numbers. He hasn’t drained the swamp. But he has reinforced the racial hierarchy. People feeling the threat of economic hardship, fraying social fabric, dim life prospects, have a resource at their disposal—well, some such people do. This may help to explain the robust racial disparities in support for Trump. Down-and-out whites can boost their self-esteem by comparing their lot with those at the bottom of the racial hierarchy in this country. They can feel better about the fact that the jobs aren’t coming back by recognizing that they aren’t black.

Dispatches from Trumpland like the one quoted above shed light on the operation of a natural feature of human psychology in real time. This doesn’t excuse anything. The fact that words and behaviors spring from a natural tendency doesn’t make them any more acceptable. But it may demystify them. Even those of us who cringe at Schiller’s reveal can recognize a pattern here. And that recognition can be useful. It shouldn’t normalize what she says, but it can provide some of the context necessary for understanding what’s happening in our country by showing us what’s animating our fellow Americans. This is useful, not just for satisfying our natural curiosity, but also for strategizing about how to effect change going forward. If for no other reason, it may be worth continuing to ask what makes Trump’s core supporters tick because this will reveal some of the obstacles to effecting a real change in the country’s direction.