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: All but the last section of this article was written before Donald Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, making its insights all the more remarkable. It was updated for Scientific American Mind.
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 the 2016 presidential race parallels an unprecedented assault on the candidate and his supporters, which went so far as to question their very grip 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 “crazy/nuts,” and then “buffoon/clown/comical/joke.” Similarly, Trump's followers were dismissed in some media accounts as idiots and bigots. Consider this March 2016 headline from a commentary in Salon: “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. 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 Adolf 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 longing 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.
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 on what we have referred to as the new psychology of leadership. Here we suggest that Trump's skills as a collective sense maker—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 because if we view Trump's crowds as mindless mobs led by primitive urges and stirred up by a narcissistic demagogue, as many critics have done, 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 specific vision of America. 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.
A rally would start 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 one another (“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 to shape the audience's worldview. As Guilford described 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 protesters they spotted. Rather they were told to notify security by chanting, “Trump! Trump! Trump!” Though often a false alarm, this cry would go up repeatedly. When it happened, the entire audience was alerted to possible enemies in their midst. As a result of these various tactics, 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 that enthusiastically performed its devotion to Trump and to an audience and security apparatus that acted as a community under threat. Yet there is one more set of actors who—perhaps unwittingly and certainly unwillingly—played a key part in the drama: members of the media, who were generally kept segregated from the crowd, positioned as a visible presence to be derided when he maligned them as the voice of a hostile establishment. Guilford described 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 the late 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 to fulfill 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 caused by the depredations of others rather than the weaknesses of the in-group (that is, 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 the speech that announced his candidacy, 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 anymore. We used to have victories, but we don't have them. When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let's say, China in a trade deal? They kill us.”
The second element was 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 that, 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, in which he opined: “Our real unemployment is anywhere 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.”
More important, though, the argument went on to assert that these external enemies thrive only because of the actions of many enemies within. Sometimes Trump just labeled these enemies as incompetent, having an inability to do deals that favor America. Sometimes he targeted specific individuals (Barack Obama, Hillary 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 announcement speech: “I've watched the 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 suggested another reason why other politicians act as enemies: they are controlled by enemies to the American people. The point was made even more explicit in Trump's economic policy speech, given on June 28, 2016, in Monessen, Pa., 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 recalled: “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 nonpolitical 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, in his next line he 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 bookended 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 because of attacks from without and betrayals from the political class within, but they have the power, united behind Trump, and the will to employ it to restore the American people to 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 ghostwriter 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 an article published online in Fortune on August 20, 2015, suggested 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 derived 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 resonated with his would-be followers' experience of their world.
There has been much controversy over the demographics of Trump's followers. For instance, they have been described as uneducated, white and poor. The percentage of Trump supporters with college degrees in the primaries was around 20 percent—about half the overall percentage of Americans who are college graduates. But in many primaries, most Republicans with college degrees did vote for Trump. Equally, it is true that, on average, Trump supporters earned less annually than those who backed his main GOP rivals ($72,000 versus $91,000 for Governor John Kasich of Ohio), but at the same time, they earned considerably more than the U.S. median wage ($56,000) and supporters of both Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont ($61,000 each). What does seem to hold, however, is that Trump supporters were primarily white, and, as Neil Irwin and Josh Katz reported in the New York Times, they lived in areas of “long-simmering economic dysfunctions” even if they themselves were 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 the generation-long transition of the United States away from manufacturing and into a diverse, information-driven economy deeply intertwined with the rest of the world.” That is, Trump's constituents were largely people who are part of a declining sector of an economy that is, at best, stagnating and who have been hit especially 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 the members of this constituency was their lack of trust in politics, politicians and political institutions. In this distrust, they were not alone. In 2015 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 President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964) to a mere 19 percent in 2015. Only 20 percent of Americans in this survey thought government programs were well run. Less than 10 percent of Republicans had trust in government. And even for Democrats, that same figure was only a little more than 30 percent. Moreover, if people feel distanced from government and believe 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 Scott Fulcher Professor of Decision Making at Northwestern University, showed that whereas 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 was to take these inchoate feelings of decline and marginalization and to provide a perspective that not only made sense of them but also 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 him, his own place and his relationship to his audience.
A Prototypical “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” in-group. Not typical. Trump is far from typical. How many ordinary Americans are worth billions and have their own towers, golf courses and jets? No, he is proto typical, which means that he represents the key values and attributes that distinguish the in-group from out-groups. This is how journalist and author Andrew Sullivan put it in New York Magazine: “He did 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 at the 2016 Republican National Convention: “We didn't learn from M.B.A.s. 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 was 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 lack of support from heavyweights of the Republican establishment—including Mitt Romney and George H. W. Bush—only helped to increase his poll ratings. His failure to follow the rules of politics and his rejection by the political class validated his in-group status in the eyes of an antipolitical audience. Supporters confirmed that he is “one of us,” not “one of them.” All this helps to explain what the Guardian newspaper called “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, with Michael J. Platow, The New Psychology of Leadership, success also depends on being seen to “do it for us,” acting for the in-group 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 does not need any more money. Equally, he cannot be bought to serve the interests of others, such as the international (that is, non-American) elite. Clinton was paid to speak to Wall Street, but Trump proclaimed that he was free to “tell it like it is”—something regularly cited as a source of his strength and a 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 he or she has 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.
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 dealt 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.
The presidential campaign went through many twists and turns after we first wrote this 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. Even though this was a scenario we had imagined on the basis of our theoretical and empirical observations, it still came as a surprise—not least because it was an outcome that almost no pundits or pollsters had forecasted.
So how could the commentators have gotten it so wrong? Why did Trump not suffer for his “gaffes” while Clinton seemingly did—most notably through renewed focus on her use of a private e-mail server during the last days of the campaign? As this article goes to press, there are important unresolved questions about Russian interference in the election, the role of FBI director James Comey's eleventh-hour announcements about Clinton's e-mails, and the influence of “fake news.” We are not in a position to assess their true impact. But we can examine evidence from election night, which tells us much about why Trump prevailed in 30 out of the 50 states.
We can start by invoking Trump's closing pitch in the campaign—the televised Donald Trump's Argument for America. This two-minute advertisement started with the candidate intoning, “Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt political establishment with a new government controlled by you, the American people.” Then it built on this basic opposition between the establishment and the people. It asserted that the establishment is an international conspiracy with national allies (cue pictures of 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 Clinton suffered for her e-mail indiscretions was because they worked directly against her own appeal, which was based on her long experience and proved 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 e-mails pointed to a self-serving and self-perpetuating Washington oligarchy. Illegality was the least of it. The e-mails suggested that Clinton 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 showed that the great majority of black and Latino people voted Democratic but less so than in 2012, that women overall voted for Clinton but that working-class women favored Trump, and that the poorest sections of the population (those earning under $30,000 a year) also voted for Clinton (albeit in smaller proportions than they had for Obama). Those in the declining middle classes (earning $50,000 to $100,000) leaned toward Trump.
The story is complicated. But two things were 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 versus 37 percent), as having the right personality and temperament (56 versus 34 percent), as being less dishonest (59 versus 65 percent) and as being less unpopular (54 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 to 13 percent. And across the electorate as a whole, the ability to bring change was identified as the key issue (by 38 percent of respondents, compared with 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 voters was a mere 31 percent).
When we put it all together, these figures tell us something important about leadership in general and about the 2016 leadership contest. 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 called into question. Instead leadership is about individuals as group members—whose success 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 many Trump voters knew full well that their man was a reprobate, that they deplored his crudities and that they saw him as a risky choice. And yet 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 to vote for the conventional candidate who represents sticking with that system.