Trump Psychology: Why the Donald Might Just Get Your Vote

Taking a second look at Trump

Posted May 05, 2016

Are you planning to vote for Donald Trump?  As hard as it might be—wait just a minute before you blurt out your answer and consider if you would have answered differently when he officially entered the race last June.  The entire campaign of the now presumptive Republican nominee has been a waiting game.  Some are waiting for him to implode; some believe he is more likely to explode—and some believe he already has. Yet whatever your views, one truth is undeniable—Trump is a phenomenon.  But is he worthy of your vote?  Consider a few aspects of what I will call Trump Psychology before you answer.

There is an abundance of excellent research on the electability of political candidates.  Results indicate that candidates are more likely to be elected if they are good-looking,[i] trustworthy, and competent.[ii]  A combination of trustworthiness and competence increases the chances of winning an election.[iii]  Yet because Donald Trump both resembles and diverges from such indicators of electability, we must look beneath the surface in order to examine the man behind the message.

Trump on the Stump: Red States and Red Flags

Warning signs that “the Donald” might be a dangerous choice for the White House are evident to both Democrats and Republicans, even in primarily red states.  My most recent book Red Flags[iv] tackled the psychology of attraction from the perceiver´s perspective—discussing how we can enhance our ability to read the person behind the persona in order to separate the dangerous from the desirable.  GOP voters have struggled for the last nine months to make this distinction in a field that began with 17 candidates.  Yet despite detractors warning voters to avoid being persuaded by flash over substance, Trump is now the presumptive nominee.   

Trump supporters explain this phenomenon by pointing out that with Donald, what you see is what you get.  He is unapologetically and brutally candid about his beliefs and ideas, and he is behaviorally consistent—almost impulsively.  He is outspoken, domineering, and assertive.  Yet despite promises to be “more presidential,” Donald never misses a chance to engage in a war of words—occasionally resulting in sound bites that are inaccurate, inappropriate, or both.  Yet Donald is blatantly honest here as well, describing himself as an instinctive counterpuncher. 

On the other hand, prospective voters have to consider what type of temperament and disposition they want to be practicing the "Art of the Deal "in the Oval Office and abroad.  Despite all of his controversial statements and gaffes, however, as of this week, Donald is officially declared to be the last man standing on the Republican side.  But can he beat Hillary Clinton?  There is an argument that he can.  Remember that the viability of Donald as a successful candidate was severely underestimated at the beginning of the primary season when he first tossed his hat into the ring. 

The Optics of Politics: Perception Influences Reality

The casino-owning billionaire businessman has been running the tables—a result no one predicted nine months ago.  Yet perception influences reality when seeing is believing.  If you doubt the power of perception, check out a news clip of a Donald Trump rally. You will think you are watching a rock concert.  And you are likely to immediately notice one of the elements Donald used to distinguish himself from candidates such as Jeb Bush and Ben Carson early in the campaign season: energy.  Taking full advantage of his ability to suck the oxygen out of a room, he used his rallies to fire up crowds with a mixture of outrage and passion that made campaign events of some of his rivals seem like sleepovers by comparison.

How does Donald exude that energy?  Much of it is optics.  Donald is authentically in his element speaking within his comfort zone: the spotlight.  Seeking to transition from his Apprentice declaration “You´re Fired” to American voters announcing “You´re Hired,” Donald consistently delivers command performances from one of his favorite positions—center stage.  He was particularly effective during the presidential debates precisely because he was front and center, both figuratively and literally, thanks to his status as the frontrunner.  From this position of power and prominence, his combination of loud words and even louder nonverbals often dominated the evening.

Yet public sentiment about the man who spent the primary season as the Republican frontrunner remains divided.  Within the court of public opinion, both supporters and detractors of Donald Trump continually sound off on social media.  The dramatic clash of views continues to generate an uproar, because Donald is a man about whom everyone has an opinion. 

Amidst the acrimony, however, Trump psychology continues to persuade some detractors, much to their surprise, to pause and consider whether he has something to offer after all.  Even for people harboring healthy skepticism, Trump´s consistent message of victory may translate into votes. 

[i] Michael G. Efran and E.W.J. Patterson, ”Voters vote beautiful: the effect of physical appearance on a national election,” Canad. J. Behav. Sci./ Rev. Canad. Sci. Comp., 6(4) (1974): 352-356.

[ii] Fang Fang Chen, Yiming Jing, and Jeong Min Lee, ”The Looks of a leader: Competent and trustworthy, but not dominant,” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 51 (2014): 27-33.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Wendy L. Patrick, Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Other Toxic People in Every Area of Your Life (St. Martin´s Press, 2015).