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EASP – European Association of Social Psychology

What psychology can teach us about Trump’s victory – and what Trump’s victory can teach us about psychology

06.06.2017, by Sibylle Classen

Steve Reicher (University of St Andrews, UK) and Alex Haslam (University of Queensland, Australia) discuss some of the reasons behind Trump's victory. The analysis they propose is enlightning and all the more remarkable given that it was first developed for the Scientific American ... before the election day.

What psychology can teach us about Trump’s victory – and what Trump’s victory can teach us about psychology

Steve Reicher (University of St Andrews, UK) and Alex Haslam (University of Queensland, Australia)

A deplorable victory

The victory of Donald Trump in the US Presidential Election was likely to have been experienced by most of us as a defeat. Furthermore, it wasn't just that Trump defeated Hilary Clinton and the Democrats. His ascendancy to the White House also seemed to be a defeat for civility, for decency, for truth, for reason. How could a man who celebrated the assault of women, who encouraged attacks on his opponents, who encouraged bizarre conspiracy theories and who spoke without regard for the evidence, ascend to the most powerful office on earth? How could over 60 million people vote for him? What does this say about politics, about society, and about the human psyche? Doesn't it confirm what social psychologists have been arguing for a long time: that the human capacity to handle complex social information is so limited and so flawed that we rely on a series of heuristics leading to a series of biases that are ripe for exploitation by the unscrupulous demagogue? She might have been unwise to say it, but wasn't Hilary right when she described many Trump supporters as 'deplorables'?

Well, the first thing to say is that Trump supporters were well aware of his personal flaws. When, in September 2015, a Suffolk University/USA Today Poll asked people for words to describe Trump, the most popular responses were 'idiot/jerk/stupid/dumb/arrogant' - and nothing much changed over the ensuing year or so. The ABC exit polls on election night showed that Clinton defeated Trump on every measure of character: she was seen as better qualified (53% to 37%), as having the right personality and temperament (65% to 34%, as being less dishonest (59% to 65%). Clearly, then, the election did not turn on the personal qualities of the leader. And so another defeat, which we must add to our long list, is that of traditional 'great man' models of leadership.

There was one area, however, where the exit polls indicate that Trump did come out on top - or rather, to be more accurate, where he obliterated his opponent. That is, 81% of respondents thought Trump could bring about change compared to 13% for Clinton. Add to this the fact that Trump supporters overwhelmingly thought that the country was seriously on the wrong track (91% compared to 31% for Clinton supporters), and a simple clear picture emerges. The issue in the election was not how able the candidates were, but whether they were on the voter's side. Indeed, if a candidate won't use their qualities for you, and might even use them against you, then these qualities are either useless or worse than useless.

Performing group relations

We have written about Trump’s election rallies before (Reicher & Haslam, 2017), drawing on the work of Gwynn Guilford who attended a series of these rallies in March 2016 . For us, crowd events in general, far from being the inchoate eruptions that they are usually portrayed as being, reflect the participants’ conceptions of the social world. Trump's rallies in particular, represent his vision of America. They were a foretaste of the type of country he sought to create and their power lay in translating an abstract political vision into a lived experience for all those who participated or observed them.

From the start, these rallies were suffused by a sense of danger and heavy security. People had to pass metal detectors to gain entry. About an hour before Trump came on stage, highly visible security agents fanned out, backs to the stage, scanning the audience for intruders. These were to be identified not only by their overt protests but by their passive dissent and even by their failure to display sufficient enthusiasm. And the audience itself was invited to join in. If they spotted an imposter they were to told to chant 'Trump! Trump! Trump!', notifying security but also the rest of the auditorium. This cry was heard repeatedly, and though often a false alarm, it created the sense that Trump supporters were, and are, constantly threatened by enemies in their midst. If nothing else, those supporters were made to act — and to observe both others and themselves acting — as if they were under threat.

Eventually, Trump himself came onto the stage. He would choreograph the expulsion of intruders, often courting controversy by seemingly sanctioning violence against them. He railed against the establishment: the enemy without (Mexicans, Muslims) as well as the enemy within (Washington, bankers). But there was one particular group against which he directed particular venom, specifically because of their presence in the auditorium: the media.

Reporters were characteristically segregated from the rest of the audience, penned in behind Trump where they could be seen as he derided them. Guilford describes such incidents where the candidate calls the press the 'most disgusting' and the 'most dishonest' people he has ever seen. He surveys them with an elaborate sneer and encourages his supporters to join in. On cue, they jeer and boo. From the perspective of the press themselves, Taibbi (2017) describes the experience:

We in the press, obediently clustered inside our protective rope line and/or standing mute on a riser in the middle of the hall, would sit looking guilty, like the pampered, narrow-shouldered, overgroomed hypocrites we are, while Trump blasted us as the embodiment of the class that had left regular America behind. (p. xxiii)

What these rallies constitute, then, is akin to a morality play which enacts Trump’s worldview and in which he and his audience are the prime actors. They are beset by the enemy without (protestors) and the enemy within (the media). But unlike everyday life, here they triumph, expelling the protestors and silencing the media. Where normally the press has the power to represent Trump and his supporters as they will, within the rally, Trump and his supporters have voice and the media have none. And of course, the agent who makes this happen, who choreographs the crowd and directs its power so none may resist it, is Trump himself. It is through him that the people become great again.

Turning weaknesses into strengths

Even this cursory glimpse at the Trump campaign (for a more comprehensive analysis, see Fitzduff, 2017) helps explain two seemingly inexplicable aspects of the 2016 election (aspects which, at first glance, seem to underscore the fundamental irrationality of human choices). The first is why Trump was not harmed — and sometimes even seemed to gain — from gaffes, which in the past would have sunk a candidate. The second was why he was not harmed by the overwhelming weight of the media against him and indeed was able to shrug off the weight of their evidence as 'fake news'.

With regard to the gaffes, there is a striking contrast between those of Trump, which serve to confirm his overall worldview, and those of Clinton, which undermine her worldview (and, more damaging still, serve to confirm his about her). Every time that Trump refers to the size of his genitalia or celebrates 'beating the crap' out of opponents; every time he goads his supporters to chant 'lock her up' or 'build the wall' he reinforces the fact that he is not part of the political establishment, that he is not a Washington insider and that he will indeed change the rules by which politics is played.

Take the most infamous of these gaffes, the Billy Bush recording in which Trump avowed: "When you are a star, they let you do it, you can do anything. Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything". At first this did indeed seem to have a negative effect. A few Republicans (such as John McCain) withdrew support from Trump's campaign. Others (such as Paul Ryan) condemned Trump but refused to withdraw their endorsement for his campaign. But in the end, most came back into the fold. Trump's defence was partially to deny he meant what he said and partly to attribute it to his prototypical rough masculinity ('locker-room talk'). In this way the incident failed to tarnish (and perhaps even burnished) the fundamentals of Trump's appeal and, as John Quiggan has observed, the much-promised Republican backlash was a dog that never barked . He remained one of 'us'.

What was striking was that, in all the criticism of Trump, the status dimension of his words was rarely if ever addressed. For sure, what he said was profoundly misogynistic. The gender dimension was therefore critical and not to be ignored. But Trump's words were not only about gender. They were also about social status and profoundly elitist. Trump spoke not only as a man and about what he could do to women but also as a 'star' and what he could do to ordinary people. In that sense, his words had the potential to torpedo his core claim to represent ordinary people against the elite and hence to fatally compromise his appeal. The fact that this was not realised and that the Democratic campaign did not even try to launch such a critique can be seen to show how profoundly they misunderstood Trump's appeal and the irrelevance (at worst, the toxicity) of relying on the conventional rules of politics.

So, when Clinton ran on 'experience' it did her little good. As we have seen, she was indeed seen as more experienced than Trump by a wide margin. But it did not win her election. Indeed, on the contrary, it helped Trump paint her as part of the anti-people establishment. Each of her gaffes — the highly paid speeches to Wall St., the description of Trump supporters as 'deplorables', and of course the endless email scandal — only provided more ammunition for the claim that she was an unaccountable, self-serving and dishonest agent of plutocratic international interests — in other words, one of 'them'. In the end, both Trump's gaffes and Clinton's gaffes fed into Trump's general narrative to Trump's overall benefit.

Turning now to issues of the media, of evidence and of the truth, there has been much concern that we now live in a world where the ignorant rule the enlightened so that we have entered a 'post-truth' era. This overlooks an enduring and important consideration. It has always been true that we judge information by the source: Are they one of us? Do they share our norms and values? Do they have our interests at heart? Accordingly, information from an outgroup, still more from an antagonistic group, is always to be treated with caution. This has not changed. What has changed is that the boundaries of ‘us’ and ‘not-us’ have been redrawn by the Trump insurgency. Those who were previously seen as disinterested arbiters of truth are now cast as part of the ‘liberal establishment’ foe. Their truths are no longer ‘our’ truths. To quote Taibbi again: “Trump’s election was a true rebellion, directed at anyone perceived to be part of ‘the establishment’. The target group included political leaders, bankers, industrialists, Hollywood actors, and, of course, the media” (2017, pp. 281-2).

The critical issue here is trust. Trust has fallen for these various institutions, now part of the outgroup. According to a Pew Research Center report, American’s trust in government fell from 73% in 1958 to 19% in 2015. According to a Gallup Poll, in 2016 only 32% of Americans expressed a ‘great deal of trust’ in the media. All this may come as little surprise. The fact that politicians, journalists and the like are distrusted is hardly new. But we might be a little more taken aback to find ourselves on the list of establishment lackeys, even if Trump’s assault was prefigured in the UK Brexit debate. Academics were accused as being far from disinterested due to reliance on EC funding. Then Michael Gove, erstwhile Minister for Education, compared those who warned against leaving the EC as akin to those Nazi scientists who smeared Albert Einstein’s work in the 1930’s. Not surprisingly, our response is to attribute such views to the deficits of those who hold them. But does the reason why people heed the likes of Gove and Trump in rejecting the ‘liberal establishment’ in general — and media or academic institutions, more specifically — lie purely in their inadequacies or could it have something to do with our own?

Trust the people?

The precise demographics and attitudes of Trump supporters is a complex matter, and moreover large swathes of data remain to be analysed. Nonetheless, three important points can be made. The first is that Trump’s supporters are not those who are at the absolute bottom of the pile, but rather those just above. As Frank Mols and Jolanda Jetten argue in their forthcoming book, The Wealth Paradox , they are people who pulled themselves up a little and who now fear losing it. Or, as Irwin and Katz (2016) argue, Trump voters are largely those who lost out in the transition from manufacturing to a globalised information-led US economy. The second point is that these people feel that their concerns are not addressed in the platforms of either Democrats or Republicans – sensing what Oliver and Rahn (2016) call “the representation gap”. The third is that, by and large, they are right to feel unrepresented. Certainly when is comes to Government policy, ordinary citizens and mass interest groups (unlike economic elites and business groups) have no discernable influence (Gilens & Page, 2014).

All in all, then, the Trumpenvolk (as Oliver & Rahn call them) do face genuine difficulties, they are in danger of losing social and economic status through globalisation, and no-one even recognises their plight… except Trump. In this context, it may be that his diagnosis of their plight is wrong and racist, and it may be that his solutions are illusory. But his are the only diagnosis and solution on offer. It is worth citing here from DeGroot’s (2015) analysis of Reagan’s successful 1966 campaign for California governor – in many ways the first successful American campaign of the modern era by an insurgent right-wing populist. Reagan, like Trump, was a political outsider who triumphed against an establishment figure (Pat Brown). Reagan, like Trump made a virtue of his inexperience and even his gaffes with the stock line ‘I’m not a politician’ — ‘I would get applause, for simply saying that’ he explained (DeGroot, 2015, p.171). And above all, Reagan, like Trump, differed from his opponent by talking about the things ordinary people were interested in. As one commentary explained “Reagan… does not say what liberals want to hear, and his analyses are simplistic if not Mesozoic, but he is saying something. Pat Brown, on the other hand, is saying nothing, except what a terrible right-winger and inexperienced neo-fascist Ronald Reagan is” (DeGroot, 2015, p.223, emphasis in the original).

It is also worth citing the work of Katherine Cramer with supporters of Scott Walker, another radical right populist elected and re-elected governor of Wisconsin. Cramer’s specific question is why rural voters endorse Walker’s assault on government workers and government spending, even when they have most need of such spending. Do these people not understand their interests? Are they suffering from deficient rationality? Through detailed ethnographic investigation and by listening carefully to her respondents, Cramer reveals something she hadn’t respected. She discovers that these respondents see the world in terms of a rural-urban divide where government, located in the capital, is prototypically urban. They also consider that urbanites have values that are different to people upstate and that they do not understand rural needs and wants. So even if they were to spend money, the money would be wasted on things that do not benefit them. Cramer shows how their opposition to public spending makes entire sense given their category representations and self-categorisations. Accordingly, Cramer challenges those who would dismiss these rural folk as just ignorant and stupid: “I would like to suggest the possibility that the issue is not about the facts they know. Instead, the issue has to do with the perspectives through which they encounter facts and conceive of possible solutions” (2016, p.145).

We suggest the same of Trump supporters. Certainly, they know Trump is deplorable (as we have seen). Certainly, they know Trump is racist and misogynistic and so, in voting for him, they are prepared to live with such views. But, for many at least, they don’t vote for him because of these views. Rather, they buy into his basic construction of the establishment versus the people (and have reason to do so) and hence in a contest where he is the only one to represent the people in any way, then they will support him warts and all.

If, in response, we dismiss such people all the more, telling them more or less technically and more or less politely that they can’t think straight, then in effect we reinforce the dynamics which led to Trump’s ascendancy in the first place. We establish ourselves more firmly than ever as part of the sneering elite. We consolidate our outgroup status and hence we undermine any expert influence we might once have had.

Our conclusion, then, is simple. To characterize Trumpism as a reflection of the flawed psyche is not just wrong but counter-productive. More difficult still, we need to recognise that the success of Trump reflects more on our own failures than those of his supporters: a failure to take their perspective seriously; a failure to understand the conditions they face; a failure to elaborate alternative progressive diagnoses and solutions to their plight. If things are to change, we must start by replacing a culture of derision with a culture of respect. Perhaps we can learn a lesson here from the late Herbert Blumer, whose 1969 book on symbolic interactionism starts with a very long chapter on method which finishes with a correspondingly short conclusion. Respect the nature of the empirical world you are studying, argues Blumer, and elaborate a methodological strategy to fit it. We would argue that one must equally respect the perspective of the respondents one is studying (especially when one disagrees with them) and devise a methodological strategy which articulates, appreciates, and addresses that perspective.


  • Cramer, K. (2016) The Politics of Resentment: Rural consciousness in Wisconsin and the rise of Scott Walker. Chicago, Ill: University of Chicago Press.
  • DeGroot, G. (2015) Selling Ronald Reagan: The emergence of a President. London: I.B. Tauris
  • Fitzduff, M. (2017) Why Irrational Politics Appeals. Santa Barbara, Ca: Praeger.
  • Gilens, M. & Page, B.I. (2014) Testing theories of American politics: Elites, interest groups and average citizens. Perspectives on Politics, 12, 564 – 581
  • Irwin, N. & Katz, J. (2016) The geography of Trumpism. Downloaded from The Upshot on 07/19/2016.
  • Oliver, E. & Rahn, W.M. (2016) Rise of the Trumpenvolk: Populism in the 2016 election. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 667, 189-206.
  • Reicher, S.D. & Haslam, S.A. (2017) The politics of hope: Donald Trump as an entrepreneur of identity. In M. Fitzduff (Ed.) Why Irrational Politics Appeals (pp. 25-40). Santa Barbara, Ca: Praeger.
  • Taibbi, M. (2017) Insane Clown President. London: W.H. Allen.