After it started as seemingly a bit of a joke, Donald Trump has catapulted into front-runner status for the Republican nomination for President in the United States.
His extreme actions and language are completely at odds with the traditional political playbook. However, it seems to be working. Whilst it may seem completely illogical, there are compelling social psychology reasons why his approach is working – and there is a dangerous historical precedent.
Where did the supporters come from?
Donald Trump has drawn a large and passionate supporter base. Whilst Ted Cruz and Mark Rubio have fashioned messages to speak to a conservative mindset, Trump has spoken across classic voter categories. His supporter base was probably not even aware that they were Trump supporters, but his campaign has activated them. First to get on board were more extreme elements, but over time his activation has reached deeper and deeper into the mainstream American population.
It was not as if there was a specific group of people that mark the Trump supporter base. Instead, his approach is reaching, and activating, ordinary Americans. How he has done it is tap into two critical fears of mainstream America, and encourage emotional, instinctive decision making.
Emotion activates voters
Barack Obama used an emotional approach for his two elections. He ran on ‘hope’. He spoke to mainstream America and activated them to see possibility. They responded, and he won the White House.
Trump has sensed a deep disaffection in the US population. His whole campaign – including every outrageous comment and action – is geared to speak to these fears, and his ability to tackle them.
The first fear is the xenophobic fear. That is the fear of outsiders. All the comments about Mexicans, ISIS, and Russia are geared to define ‘us’ and ‘them’. When someone disagrees with him at a rally, he asks them repeatedly ‘Are you Mexican?’ He wants to enhance the fear of others, and set up outsiders as being different and dangerous.
The second fear is the fear of social change. People in the US are scared about their quality of life; with international trade deals, declining standards of living, crime and reduced opportunity weighing on the minds of Americans. The slogan ‘Making America great again’ taps into this fear, and the sense of loss that people feel from not having their ‘American dream’ is continuously highlighted by Trump.
What happens when you activate these fears?
These fears, when activated, motivate a shift in the people’s tolerance and desires. If drives people to seek a leader who they believe can deal with the threats that these fears imply. They seek a leader who is strong, simple and punitive. They are prepared to trade away civil liberties for an authoritarian leader that can keep them safe.
Most people supporting Trump would not want to admit outright xenophobia or a deep fear of societal change. However, their preference for order, respect for authority and decency outweighs the desire for civil liberties, freedom of expression or taking opportunity. This shows up not as outright xenophobic or authoritarian attitudes, but is subtly present in all aspects of the preferences from parenting style, schooling, workplace and social engagements. They would not identify with wanting authoritarian leadership, however they rate order, respect and values above freedom and individual expression. It leads them to prefer powerful punitive responses to threats demonstrating strength – rather than justice and negotiated solutions.
Trump has addressed these fears and fed these desires with every speech and action.
By tapping into these latent undercurrents in society, Trump has activated more and more of the population. The media coverage and the growing groundswell of support have legitimised people’s responses to his approach, so his support has shifted from the fringes deeper and deeper into mainstream society.
The Trump approach
If Trump were to have a playbook, it would consist of the following elements:
- Keep it simple, keep it global. Every statement is short, sharp and emotionally laden. He will avoid answering specific questions and talk in circles until he can make that one statement that proves a personal characteristic of power and strength, his punitive idea, or address the two fears.
- Everything is about his personal characteristics; his strength, capability and power. It is not about his team or the American people. It is about him. He is successful, strong, smart, has large genitalia, is rich, is a winner, is angry, is vengeful…. Trump knows it is a personality contest, based on authoritarian values. He knows being outrageous only amplifies his status in this regard.
- Punitive responses are demanded to any slight. Consider the way he deals with protesters. His punitive views about how people who disagree with him (“I’d like to punch him in the face”) has led to real violence. His commentary on killing terrorist’s wives and children is punitive (and is also a war crime). His common threat to sue people also plays to this strategy.
- It is not about the logic, it is about the appeal to gut instinct. Everything that Trump does is geared to activate the instinctive, emotional response. Avoiding logical discussion or evaluation is key to his approach. Logical evaluation shifts the focus away from the fears, and exposes him to more reasoned judgement.
- Make it ‘us versus them’. Protestors are asked ‘Are you Mexican?’. Every opportunity is taken to divide people into an ‘in group’ (winners, punishers, etc) and dangerous outsiders. This enhances the xenophobic fear. Every opportunity to make the outsiders scary (All Mexicans are rapists and criminals) and to be the strong, punitive answer (‘We will build a wall and they will pay for it”) plays to his message.
- Invoke the Halo response at every opportunity. People take limited information and substitute it across categories. Every time Trump can identify as successful or powerful in business, the more often people will believe he will be a successful and powerful president.
- Highlight what has been lost. By talking about how America used to be great, he is invoking the second fear. He is maximising the impact of loss (which is twice as powerful as thinking about what can be gained), and creating a need for an authoritarian leader different to the ‘old school’ politicians he is running against.
- Weakness of others compared to him. In the same vein, Trump wants others to appear weak, more complex, less punitive and more from the establishment than him. This means he will take more extreme positions on these dimensions than other candidates.
What is he not talking about?
Compared to a traditional campaign, Trump rarely talks about things we would demand of other candidates. These include policy, the economy, and any specifics and details. Can you think of another candidate who could have run this deep into a presidential campaign without detail or policy?
Opening conversations on these topics would require his supporters to start thinking, rather than be emotionally triggered. It would shift people out of being emotionally activated, and lead to more thoughtful candidate comparisons. Instead of people doing a single evaluation (“Trump is tough and strong”), logical thinking opens comparison (“but compared to Cruz he is…”).
Other candidates like Cruz and Rubio took highly conservative policy and economic positions to appeal to the emotion and logic that they thought was present in their constituencies. Trump’s approach, which avoids these conversations, avoids the party lines and activates more broadly than just highly conservative Republicans.
Why Trump, why now?
People have been primed for Trump. His strong media presence has given him visibility and a brand. His appearance on the ‘Apprentice’ reality show allowed him, in almost a cartoonish way, to appear powerful and punitive (‘You’re fired!’). This brand association has primed people’s views of Trump, and fits perfectly with the authoritarian leadership style people are seeking.
On top of this, the short media cycle, the fear based messaging, the FOX network approach to debate have all primed the US population to be activated on these two key fears.
Trump really is the right character, at the right time, to engage in this way.
How to fight it.
If social psychology can explain Trump, can it also offer any pointers of how he could be countered?
- Ask for detail and specifics. This forces the debate into logical thinking and encourages between candidate evaluation. His emotive, globalised statements allow him to avoid this.
- Highlight regret. Others would not be successful if they play Trump at his own game. He has this extreme position staked out. Instead, focusing on regret is an alternate emotional strategy. By talking about how people could regret what would happen by electing Teump, and highlight all of the people who have regretted working with him in the past, the emotion and fear can be leveraged against him.
- Him versus us. Splitting Trump out from ordinary Americans ( him versus us) can help reduce his impact. Whilst he is seen as an outsider to the political system, a fighter and holder of Americas core values, he can get away with extreme actions and language. If the view of him can be shifted to him being outside this group, he loses this freedom, and would be judged more harshly, and more rationally, for doing so.
- Avoid complexity, keep it simple. Never has simplicity and soundbites been more important. Complex messaging is too hard for people, so they switch off and judge candidates harshly for it. Simple is best.
- Flip his arguments. Instead of challenging his arguments, agree and flip them. When he suggests he is successful, first agree then reframe (something like ‘thats right, you are so successful you have been bankrupt three times’). Direct challenge sets you up as an outsider. Agreement-reversals allow his definitions to be changed, or more information to be added to the big ideas he tries to sell.
- Stand up to him. Standing up to his outbursts and comments (in a non aggressive way) diminishes his power. Candidates are letting him take extreme positions, say outrageous things and bully and abuse people because they believe the electorate will punish him for it, and they don’t want to appear like that themselves. Calmly and clearly standing up for people, positions and correcting Trumps assertions takes away one of the pillars of his emotive approach. It stops the impression that he is the toughest, most punitive guy in the room.
The Munich beer halls – similarity in approach?
Hitler appealed to these two fears in the 1930’s. The outsiders were the Jews, the communists, and the social fear was driven by the treaty of Versailles repayments and loss of feeling of importance within Europe.
He followed a similar approach. Simple, punitive, strong.
I wonder how it will turn out this time?