Can Psychology Explain Donald Trump’s Victory?

A look at psychological research and the future of the Trump Presidency.

Posted Nov 11, 2016

Donald Trump’s astounding presidential victory appears to have surprised many, including pollsters, experts, pundits, and large swaths of the media and the political intelligentsia.

Is it possible that in order to fully comprehend what has happened in a tumultuous election, psychological processes need to be invoked? Perhaps it is a failure to grasp the particular psychological appeal of a figure like Trump, which explains why so many expert political pundits were caught looking the wrong way, as the surprising results came in?

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

Any attempt to understand the emotional appeal of Donald Trump, in our opinion, must defer to the concept of the ‘Authoritarian’ personality type.

Theodore Adorno, who pioneered this novel psychological way of thinking about politics, and who died in 1969, was a German Sociologist and Philosopher, attempting to explain the rise of the Third Reich in a classic study, "The Authoritarian Personality," published in 1950.

Freudian ideas were borrowed to understand how extremist right wing ideologies might spread through mainstream society.

Explaining the popularity of leaders like Hitler and Mussolini, Adorno formulated an authoritarian personality type, characterized by extreme obedience to a powerful dominant leader who took on the psychological role of father figure. These personality traits clustered prejudicial, rigid, oppressive, dictatorial attitudes and behaviors towards others, especially those regarded as inferior.

Authoritarians tend to submit to authorities, obey conventional social traditions, becoming aggressive towards deviating from mainstream norms and values.

Now a team of psychologists—Emma Onraet, Jasper Van Assche, Arne Roets, Tessa Haesevoets and Alain Van Hiel, based at Ghent University in Belgium—have published a study which explains why more right wing views might be the result of a sense of feeling threatened.

Their research, published in the academic journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, was partly inspired from previous findings that for people experiencing significant mental distress caused by adverse life events, authoritarianism could be psychologically protective. Authoritarianism could be related to improved general health, when facing dire straits, whereas this relationship is absent for those not experiencing mental distress.

Other previous research had also found that authoritarianism has more psychological benefits for members of societies experiencing threats to their communal sense of worth and standing, than for members of higher-status groups.

The new study, "The Happiness Gap Between Conservatives and Liberals Depends on Country-Level Threat: A Worldwide Multilevel Study," examined right-wing attitudes and psychological well-being across 94 large, representative samples collected worldwide, representing a a total of 137,890 subjects.

Results suggest that, especially in countries characterized by high levels of threat, individuals with more right-wing attitudes experienced greater well-being than individuals with left-wing outlooks. In countries with a low level of threat, this relationship was considerably weaker or even absent.

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

The authors conclude that their findings corroborate the supposition that right-wing political attitudes may serve a psychological self-protective function, helping individuals to manage and cope with threat.

They calculated a country’s sense of threat from various sources, including the Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, using measures for gross domestic product, unemployment, inflation, life expectancy and homicide rates.

A particularly interesting finding was that the well-being of political right-wingers seems to be rather stable irrespective of the level of threat, whereas left-wingers demonstrated steeper decreases in well-being with increasing threat levels.

Adhering to right-wing political attitudes may feature an ego-defensive function, providing a buffer against the negative consequences of threatening events. More right wing attitudes might allow some to successfully handle threats and to remain equally happy.

Left-wingers, the authors contend, in contrast, don’t share these coping mechanisms so being confronted with threat would then result in more malign implications, such as steeper decreases in well-being.

These findings, the authors conclude, align with the argument that more right-wing political views may psychologically function to specifically and powerfully help people cope with threat.

But is it also possible that those harboring more right-wing attitudes seek to confirm and justify their beliefs, and so are more motivated to view and interpret the world as perilous and menacing?

Some psychologists have therefore suggested that enhanced threat perceptions are a consequence, rather than a cause, of right-wing attitudes

In another recent study—"The Relationships Between Internal and External Threats and Right-Wing Attitudes: A Three-Wave Longitudinal Study"—Emma Onraet, Kristof Dhont and Alain Van Hiel, also of Ghent University, investigated this possibility.

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

Published in the academic journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, this study investigated the relationship between threats and right-wing attitudes at three different time points in a large nationally representative sample of 800 subjects. The study found higher levels of external threat were related to higher levels of Right-Wing Authoritarianism, but higher levels of Right-Wing Authoritarianism were also linked to increased perception of external threat later in time.

So, external threat leads to enhanced levels of right-wing attitudes, while being authoritarian also produces greater perceptions of threat. This might suggest a very dangerous vicious political and social spiral can be created whereby a population develops paranoia in a cycle that becomes difficult to break.

These psychological research findings could be interpreted as sounding an ominous prediction for a Trump Presidency. That far from moving forward into being a more magnanimous unifying force, now the campaign is over, instead it contains the natural seeds that will encourage yet further extremism to flower.

Is this not what happened to Europe in the 1930s?

What these studies seem to suggest is that if you want to truly understand the appeal of a figure like Donald Trump, you need to grasp just how threatened the voters were feeling, and that was what his opponents consistently underestimated.

But perhaps the biggest underestimation was just how psychologically astute he turned out to be.

Dr Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen are podcast editors for the Royal College of Psychiatrists and also now have a free app on iTunes and Google Play store entitled "Raj Persaud in Conversation." See: and Also, Raj Persaud's new novel is Can't Get You Out Of My Head.