Adapted from Why Irrational Politics Appeals: Understanding the Allure of Trump, edited by Mari Fitzduff, with permission from ABC–CLIO/Praeger. Copyright © 2017.
Editor’s Note: This article was written before Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, which makes its insights all the more remarkable.
It is easy and common to dismiss those whose political positions we disagree with as fools or knaves—or, more precisely, as fools led by knaves. Indeed, the inability of even the most experienced pundits to grasp the reality of Donald Trump’s political ascendency in this year’s Presidential race parallels an unprecedented assault on the candidate and his supporters, which went so far as to question their very grasp on reality. So it was that when a Suffolk University/USA Today Poll asked 1,000 people in September 2015 to describe Trump in their own terms, the most popular response was “idiot/jerk/stupid/dumb,” followed by “arrogant” and then “buffoon/clown/comical/joke.” Similarly, Trump’s followers were dismissed in some media accounts as idiots and bigots. Consider this headline from the Salon website: “Hideous, disgusting racists: Let’s call Donald Trump and his supporters exactly what they are.”
Such charges remind us of Theodore Abel’s fascinating 1938 text, “Why Hitler Came Into Power,” but first let us be absolutely explicit: We are not comparing Trump, his supporters or their arguments to the Nazis in any way. Instead, our goal is to expose some problems in the ways that commentators analyze and explain behaviors of which we disapprove. In 1934, Abel traveled to Germany and ran an essay competition, offering a prize for autobiographies of Nazi Party members. He received around 600 responses, from which he was able to glean why so many Germans supported Hitler. Certainly many essays expressed a fair degree of anti-semitism, and some a virulent hatred of Jews. In this sense, party members were indeed racists or, at the very least, did not object to the party’s well-known anti-semitic position. But this is very different from saying that they joined and remained in the party primarily or even partially because they were racists. Abel discovered that many other motives were involved, among them a sense of the decline of Germany, a desire to rediscover past greatness, a fear of social disorder and the desire for a strong leader.
We would argue that the same is true of those who supported Trump. Some, undoubtedly, were white supremacists. All were prepared to live with his racist statements about Muslims, Mexicans and others. But are racism, bigotry and bias the main reasons people supported Trump? Certainly not. We argue instead that we need to analyze and understand the way he appealed to people and why he elicited their support. Moreover, we need to respect those we study if we want to understand their worldview, their preferences and their decisions. The more distant these are from our own, the harder this task is, but also, the more important it becomes.
To understand how Trump appealed to voters, we start by looking at what went on inside a Trump event. For this, we are indebted to a particularly insightful analysis by journalist Gwynn Guilford who, acting as an ethnographer, participated in Trump rallies across the state of Ohio in March 2016. We then analyze why Trump appealed to his audience, drawing upon what we have referred to as the new psychology of leadership. Here we suggest that Trump’s skills as a collective sensemaker—someone who shaped and responded to the perspective of his audience—were very much the secret of his success.
Anatomy of a Rally
A Trump rally involved much more than just a Trump speech. Important though his words were (and we will look at them in some detail), it is even more essential to look at the event as a performance of a particular worldview. Once again, the charge of irrationalism can serve to obscure; for if we view Trump crowds as mindless mobs led by primitive urges and stirred up by a narcissistic demagogue, it impairs our ability to appreciate what his events tell us about how those who attended them see the world.
In simple terms, a Trump rally was a dramatic enactment of a particular vision of America. More particularly, it enacted how Trump and his followers would like America to be. In a phrase, it was an identity festival that embodied a politics of hope.
The rally started long before Trump’s arrival. Indeed, the long wait for the leader was part and parcel of the performance. This staged delay affected the self-perception of the audience members (“If I am prepared to wait this long, this event and this leader must be important to me.”). It affected the ways audience members saw each other (“If others are prepared to wait this long, this event and the leader must be important to them.”). And it thereby set up a norm of devotion in the crowd and a sense of shared identity among crowd members (“We are joined together in our devotion to this movement.”).
The wait also provided time for other ritualized acts that helped shape the audience’s world view. As Guilford describes it, Trump’s security procedures were more rigorous than those of any other candidate. At every venue, the audience had to pass through a metal detector. Inside, highly visible security agents abounded. They fanned out, their backs to the stage, and purposefully made eye contact with audience members, checking for intruders. Audience members joined in the exercise. A person did not have to express overt opposition to be deemed suspect; just failing to show sufficient enthusiasm could draw others’ hostile attention.
About an hour before Trump would speak, a message broadcast over the PA system instructed crowd members not to touch any protestors they spotted. Rather they were told to notify security by chanting “Trump! Trump! Trump!” Although often a false alarm, this cry would go up repeatedly. And when it happened, the entire audience was alerted to possible enemies in their midst. As a result of these various tactics, the crowd members were induced to act as if they were under threat—and observing themselves and others behaving in this way only served to reinforce the presumption that they truly were under threat, from enemies both without and within.
As identity festivals, Trump rallies succeeded in large part thanks to an audience who enthusiastically performed their devotion to Trump and to an audience and security apparatus who acted as a community under threat. Yet there is one more set of actors who—perhaps unwittingly, certainly unwillingly—played a key part in the drama: the media, who were generally kept segregated from the crowd and behind Trump, positioned as a visible presence to be derided when he maligned them as the voice of a hostile establishment. Guilford describes one such incident.
“Trump scowls at the media cattle pen in the back of the room and calls the press the “most disgusting” and “most dishonest” people he’s ever seen, pantomiming his disdain with an elaborate sneer before goading his supporters to turn and glare too. On cue, the crowd turns and boos.”
In this moment, the tables are turned. The media and establishment are no longer big and powerful. They are small and cowed by Trump’s legions.
Trump on the Stump
Just as Trump’s rallies brought to life a powerful representation of social relations, his speeches confirmed and fleshed out this representation. In this regard, his rhetoric was largely consistent from rally to rally and presented a particular example of a general form that cultural critic Sacvan Bercovitch called the American Jeremiad. By definition, this form of rhetoric extols the notion that America has an exceptional mission in the world, but is falling short and therefore needs to change in order to fulfil its original vision. What distinguished Trump’s version from the original Puritan one is, first, that the failings are a matter of power and wealth rather than of moral purpose and, second, that they are due to the depredations of others rather than the weaknesses of the ingroup (i.e., his supporters).
Trump’s standard argument had three key elements. The first asserted that America, once great, is now weak and repeatedly humiliated by others. Thus, in his Presidential announcement speech, given at Trump Tower in New York City on June 16, 2015, he asserted, “Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories any more. We used to have victories, but we don’t have them. When was the last time anyone saw us beating, let’s say China in a trade deal? They kill us.”
The second element is that America’s decline was framed as resulting from the actions of its enemies. These enemies are in part external: China and Mexico and other countries who, in his view, cheat, are corrupt and take the jobs and wealth of ordinary Americans. Again, we can see this stance in Trump’s presidential announcement speech, in which he opined: “Our real unemployment is from 18 to 20 percent. Don’t believe the 5.6. Don’t believe it. That’s right. A lot of people up there can’t get jobs, because there are no jobs, because China has our jobs and Mexico has our jobs. They all have jobs.”
Importantly, though, the argument went on to assert that these external enemies thrive only because of the actions of many enemies within. Sometimes, Trump just labelled these enemies as incompetent, having an inability to do deals that favor America. Sometimes he targeted particular individuals (Obama, Clinton, his Republican rivals), and sometimes he targeted the political class as a whole. This line of attack is exemplified by the following passage, also from his Presidential announcement speech: “I’ve watched politicians. I’ve dealt with them all my life. If you can’t make a good deal with a politician, then there’s something wrong with you. You are certainly not very good. And that’s what we have representing us. They will never make America great again. They don’t even have a chance. They’re controlled fully—they’re controlled fully by the lobbyists, by the donors, and by the special interests, fully.”
This statement points to another reason why other politicians act as enemies: They are controlled by enemies to the American people. This point was made even more explicit in Trump’s economic policy speech, given on June 28 in Monessen, Pennsylvania, in which he pilloried his chief Democratic rival: “The people who rigged the system are supporting Hillary Clinton because they know as long as she is in charge nothing is going to change. The inner cities will remain poor. The factories will remain closed. The borders will remain open. The special interests will remain firmly in control. Hillary Clinton and her friends in global finance want to scare America into thinking small.” In short, the analysis proposed that America is losing out because the enemy within is colluding with the enemy beyond.
After identifying the problem and its cause, the third part of Trump’s argument went on to identify the all-important solution: himself. Throughout his speeches, Trump insisted that he is not like other politicians. He knows how to make a deal. He insisted that he has been so successful and become so rich that he cannot be bought. For instance, in one of many anecdotes Trump recalls: "One of the big banks came to me and said, ‘Donald, you don’t have enough borrowings. Could we loan you $4 billion’? I said, ‘I don’t need it. I don’t want it.’.”
As a consequence of these non-political attributes, Trump positioned himself as being able to restore what America has lost. Accordingly, when, in his announcement speech, he asserted that China beat the U.S. in trade deals, the next line observed: “I beat China all the time. All the time.” To this, the audience applauded and chanted, “We want Trump! We want Trump!” In closing that speech, he said: “If I get elected president, I will bring it back bigger and better and stronger than ever before, and we will make America great again.” By using the term “we” here, he included his audience and thereby significantly extended his argument—insisting that it is not just Trump but the Trump movement that will restore greatness.
This invocation of the crowd bookends the speech and we can conclude our analysis by rewinding from the closing words to the opening words: “Wow. Whoa. That is some group of people. Thousands… This is beyond anybody’s expectations. There’s been no crowd like this.” Here we come full circle and see how the rhetorical and the performative come together: the crowd is reflected back to itself as a demonstration of its power to achieve change. In this, the relationship between the crowd, Trump and threatening enemies within the event is translated into a vision of the world in general: Ordinary Americans have fallen from their rightful place in the world due to attacks from without and betrayals from the political class within, but they have the power, united behind Trump, and the will to employ it, in order to restore this place.
Everything coheres. Everything that was used as evidence of pathology—from the rough language and baying at foes to the devotion and reverence for one who violates all the rules of politics—makes sense within the terms of this vision. It is a vision realized in its very telling. It is an enactment of Trump’s new America. It is not only a politics of hope, but the lived experience of all that is hoped for.
The Entrepreneur of Identity
As we have seen, Donald Trump made much of his economic entrepreneurial skills and his ability to make deals—although these claims have come under some critical scrutiny. Indeed, Tony Schwartz, the ghost-writer of Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal, has described them as a work of fiction and said, “I feel a deep sense of remorse that I contributed to presenting Trump in a way that brought him wider attention and made him more appealing than he is.” And a report in Fortune on August 20, 2015 suggests that Trump would have made more than four times as much money if he had simply invested his money in an index fund. Whatever the truth of the matter, our argument is that Trump’s political success derives not primarily from his acumen as a business entrepreneur but rather from his skills as an entrepreneur of identity—in essence, his ability to represent himself and his platform in ways that resonate with his would-be followers’ experience of their world.
There has been much controversy over the demographics of Trump’s followers. For instance, it has often been asserted that they are uneducated, white and poor. Certainly, the percentage of Trump supporters with college degrees (around 20 percent) is much lower than the percentage of Americans with college degrees (roughly 40 percent), but in many primaries, most Republicans with college degrees did vote for Trump. Equally, it is true that, on average, Trump supporters earn less than those who backed his main rivals in the primaries and general election ($72,000 versus $91,000 for Kasich), but at the same time, they earn considerably more than the median wage ($56,000) and supporters of both Clinton and Sanders ($61,000 each). What does seem to hold, however, is that Trump supporters are primarily white and, as Neil Irwin and Josh Katz reported in The New York Times, they live in areas of "long simmering economic dysfunctions" even if they themselves are not poor. To quote further from Irwin and Katz: “One element common to a significant share of his supporters is that they have largely missed out on the generation-long transition of the United States away from manufacturing and into a diverse, information-driven economydeeply intertwined with the rest of the world.” That is, Trump’s constituency consists largely of people who are part of a declining sector of an economy which is, at best, stagnating and who have been hit particularly hard by trade deals that have opened the U.S. to competition from low-cost manufacturing elsewhere in the world.
The second reliable characteristic of this constituency is their lack of trust in politics, politicians and political institutions. In this distrust they are not alone. Last year, a Pew Research Center report showed that overall trust in government had fallen from 73 percent in 1958 (rising to a peak of 77 percent under Johnson in 1964) to a mere 19 percent in 2015. Only 20 percent of Americans think government programs are well run. Less than 10 percent of Republicans have trust in government. And even for Democrats, that same figure is only a little over 30 percent. Moreover, if people feel distanced from government and that the government does not represent them, there is good reason to conclude that this is rooted in their actual experience. For example, a 2014 analysis by Martin Gilens, a professor of politics at Princeton University, and Benjamin I. Page, Gordon S. Fulcher Professor of Decision Making at Northwestern University, shows that, while economic elites and business groups have considerable influence on U.S. government policy, average citizens and mass interest groups have virtually none.
Trump’s accomplishment has been to take these inchoate feelings of decline and marginalization and to provide a perspective that not only made sense of them but provided a solution. In so doing, he acknowledged the real problems of his audience (while others ignored them or even contributed to them); he understood them and empowered them to participate in the process of resolving those problems. But he also did one more thing. For his narrative was not only about the world and the place of his audience within it. It was also about himself, his own place and his relationship to his audience.
A Protoypical “Ordinary American”
Trump clarified his own position in the world with reference to a classic populist confection in which that world is divided into two groups: the common people and a privileged elite. Here the people were defined in national terms—as Americans—and the elite, primarily in political terms. Trump’s claim to leadership was then rooted largely in the work he did to position himself firmly among the former (and his rivals among the latter). This division indeed was at the heart of his successful identity entrepreneurship.
To start with, Trump has construed himself as prototypical of the “ordinary American” ingroup. Not typical. Trump is far from typical. How many ordinary Americans are worth billions, have their own tower, university and jet? No, he is prototypical, which means that he represents the key values and attributes that distinguish the ingroup from other outgroups. This is how journalist and author Andrew Sullivan put it in New York Magazine: “Hedid not hide his wealth in the late 20th century—he flaunted it in a way that connected with the masses. He lived the rich man’s life most working men dreamed of—endless glamour and women, for example—without sacrificing a way of talking about the world that would not be out of place on the construction sites he regularly toured. His was a cult of democratic aspiration.”
In keeping with this, here is how Donald Trump Jr. described his father in his speech to the Republican Convention: “We didn’t learn from MBAs. We learned from people who had doctorates in common sense .... It’s why we’re the only children of billionaires as comfortable in a D10 Caterpillar as we are in our own cars. My father knew that those were the guys and gals who would teach us the dignity of hard work from a very young age. He knows that at the heart of the American dream is the idea that whoever we are, wherever we’re from we can get ahead, where everyone can prosper together."
Likewise, the way Trump dresses (always immaculate in tie and expensive suit, never dressing down, signifying his wealth), the way he talks (the crude, undiplomatic, violent forms of expression) and what he says, are not incidental. They are part of his performance as an exemplary American. In addition, they distinguish him from the typical (or prototypical) politician. What is thought to be a weakness (lack of political experience) is touted as a strength. Here, then, Trump’s constant violations of political rules, so often seen as presaging his decline, actually served to consolidate his ascendancy. Furthermore, the attacks by heavyweights of the Republican establishment—including Mitt Romney and George Bush—only helped to increase his poll ratings. For his failure to follow the rules of politics and his rejection by the political class validated his ingroup status in the eyes of an anti-political audience. They confirmed that he is “one of us,” not “one of them.” All this helps explain what The Guardian newspaper calls “the paradox that has been at the heart of the Trump phenomenon”—that is “how can a billionaire businessman from New York be the one who ‘gets’ the struggling working class?”
But it is not enough to be “one of us.” As we note in our 2011 book, The New Psychology of Leadership, success also depends on being seen to “do it for us,” acting for the ingroup interest. This claim is one of Trump’s constant refrains and again his wealth acts for him, not against him. He says he is not acting to enrich himself; he doesn’t need any more money. Equally, he cannot be bought to serve the interests of others, such as the international (i.e., non-American) elite. While Hillary Clinton was being paid to speak on Wall Street, Trump proclaimed that he was free to “tell it like it is”—something regularly cited as a source of his strength and a major reason why people voted for him.
Finally, even “doing it for us” is not enough if a leader lacks the support or ability to be successful in advancing the group interest. The effective leader must, above all, “make it real,” turning group values into lived experience. Although it is difficult for an aspirant to power to achieve anything before they have been elected, Trump rose to this challenge by making much of his previous successes and his credentials as an inspired business leader and deal maker. Also, as we have seen, by so carefully choreographing his rallies, he created a simulacrum of reality within the very movement designed to change reality.
In sum, Trump’s campaign was all about creating a particular sense of “us” (articulating a sense of “them” is critical, but secondary) and then establishing how he himself is representative of the group in both a symbolic and a practical way, able to represent the group at the political level. The skill, complexity and subtlety with which he accomplished this feat (even when it came to his use of crudity) helps us understand why Trump proved so appealing to his audience.
To summarize our argument, we contend that Trump succeeded by providing a categorical grid—a clear definition of groups and intergroup relations—that allowed many Americans to make sense of their lived experience, to understand their problems and to entertain the hope of being able to deal with them. Within this framework, he established himself as a champion and as a voice for people who otherwise felt unchampioned and voiceless. Ironically, too, in a politics controlled by wealth and privilege, his wealth freed him of the charge that he was in hock to the money men. Above all, Trump had an intuitive grasp of how to establish himself as the voice of America in both his words and his actions.
What is more, Trump's successes must be seen in light of others’ failures. In particular, his rivals did not succeed in providing an alternative grid, based on alternative categories, to make sense of the experiences of many Americans. They did not deploy the skills of identity leadership to present an inclusive narrative of “us” that deals with the real problems people face. They did not elaborate an alternative politics and an alternative set of solutions. In that context, Trump had a relatively free run.
Postscript: President-Elect Trump
The Presidential campaign went through many twists and turns after we first wrote the above piece in the summer of 2016. If anything, Trump became even more extreme. The Billy Bush tapes, in which he boasted about assaulting women, seemed sure to disqualify him from the Presidency. But, for all that, on election day, he prevailed in the electoral college (though not in the popular vote) and is now on his way to the White House. Even though this was a scenario we had imagined on the basis of our theoretical and empirical observations, it still sounds strange—not least because it was an outcome that almost no pundits or pollsters had forecast.
So how could the commentators have got it so wrong? Why did Trump not suffer for his “gaffes” while Hillary Clinton seemingly did—most notably through renewed focus on her use of a private email server during the last days of the campaign? And what does the evidence from election night tell us about why Trump prevailed? Does it support the analysis we have offered or does it undermine our arguments? Let us try to answer these questions one at a time.
We can start by invoking Trump’s closing pitch in the campaign—his TV “Argument for America.” This two-minute advertisement started with the candidate intoning that “Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt political establishment with a new government controlled by you, the American people.” Then it builds on this basic opposition between the establishment and the people. It asserts that the establishment is an international conspiracy with national allies (cue pictures of Hillary Clinton)—people “who don’t have your good in mind.” The categories could not be starker, nor could the way in which Trump overlaid himself on “the people” (us) and his rival on “the establishment” (them). From the start to the end of the campaign, Trump was nothing if not consistent in driving home this framework.
The question regarding the impact of any specific event is then tied to whether it strengthened or subverted this categorical appeal. And the fact is that here—perhaps especially here—the so-called gaffes can be seen as having strengthened it. Even the Billy Bush tape allowed Trump to emphasize his “locker-room” credentials. Rough? Yes. Crude? Yes. But even more obviously, not the cultured talk of those slick establishment insiders.
In this regard, one wonders what might have happened had Trump’s critics played their hand differently. What if they had emphasized the elitist rather than the sexist dimension? After all, Trump was boasting that, as a star, he could take advantage of ordinary folk. He was expressing contempt in direct violation of his claims to be a leader of and for the people. But it was not on this that he was called into account. Instead, he was mainly faulted for the deficiencies of character that this episode revealed.
In contrast, one can argue that the reason Hillary suffered for her email indiscretions was because they worked directly against her own appeal, which was based on her long experience and proven commitment to working for the American people. To use a private server for state business seemed an elementary error, one designed to make her less accountable to the people. Moreover, even if not illegal, the content of the emails pointed to a self-serving and self-perpetuating Washington oligarchy. Illegality was the least of it. The emails suggested that Hillary was simply not of us or for us.
Finally, then, what did the election night results tell us? There is a welter of information here. It shows that the great majority of black and Latino people voted Democrat, but less so than in 2012. It shows that women overall voted clearly for Hillary, but that working class women favored Trump. It shows that the poorest sections of the population (those earning under $30,000 a year) also voted for Hillary (albeit in smaller proportions than last time round) but that those in the declining middle classes (earning $50,000-$100,000) leaned towards Trump.
The story is complicated. But two things are abundantly clear from the ABC News exit polls. First, on every measure of character and suitability for the Presidency, Clinton had a clear lead. She was seen as better qualified than Trump (53 percent versus 37 percent), as having the right personality and temperament (56 percent versus 34 percent), as being less dishonest (59 percent versus 65 percent) and as being less unpopular (54 percent versus 61 percent).
Second, there is just one measure on which Donald trumped Hillary—and did so by a country mile: voters’ perceptions of who could bring about change. Here Trump won out by 81 percent to 13 percent. And across the electorate as a whole, ability to bring change was identified as the key issue (by 38 percent of respondents, compared to the next most important issue identified by 22 percent). It was particularly important to Trump’s people of whom a massive 93 percent saw the U.S. as seriously on the wrong track (whereas the corresponding figure for Clinton’s people was a mere 31 percent).
Putting it all together, these figures tell us something important about leadership in general, and about this leadership contest in particular. On the former, they underline the point that leadership is never about the character of individuals as individuals. This is the “old psychology of leadership” that our own theoretical and empirical analysis has repeatedly called into question. Instead, leadership is about individuals as group members—whose success necessarily hinges on their capacity to create, represent, advance and embed a shared sense of “us.” Reflecting on the implications of this analysis for the specifics of this election, we can see that Trump’s followers knew full well that their man was a reprobate, that they deplored his crudities, and that they saw him as a risky choice. As one supporter interviewed by an Australian reporter put it: “He may be an asshole, but he’s our asshole.” Moreover, in a world where the system is seen to be against “us” and where things appear to be driven in the wrong direction by “them,” the really irrational thing to do is stick with that system and elect its representative however superior their personal credentials or character.