Trust the people! How psychology can help us understand the rise of Donald Trump

by Professor Stephen Reicher FBA

14 Sep 2017

Sometimes it feels like we’re back in the 1930s: a fragile economy in hesitant recovery from deep depression; a fragmented international system and a retreat to protectionism; the drums of war sounding ever louder and closer; the political centre replaced by previously fringe movements; the rise to power of strongmen once derided as cranks. Why, we even have Huddersfield Town back near the top of football’s top division.

Of course, analogies are always partial and can be overdrawn. But it is striking how many of the world’s elected leaders are authoritarian populists. So why do people support a Modi, an Orban, or a Putin? And what on earth is the appeal of a Donald Trump?

It’s easy to jump to the conclusion that those who champion a flawed leader are themselves flawed and that our political troubles result from the inability of the electorate to exercise sound judgment. Now, of course, people who elect a man who depicts Mexicans as rapists, who wants to ban all Muslims and who boasts about his sexual assaults must be prepared at the very least to turn a blind eye to his racism and sexism. But this doesn’t mean they elected him because of his racism and sexism. Indeed, the polling evidence suggests that most Americans judged Hilary Clinton to be of better character and that many who voted for Trump deplored his prejudices. In any case, it wasn’t what Trump stood for but what he stood against that was critical. Put simply, Trump supporters voted with their middle finger.

The problem, though, isn’t simply that a portrayal of these supporters as flawed is useless as an explanation of Trump’s support. In fact, it is worse because it serves to bolster his support. The obvious example of this is Hilary’s infamous characterization of Trump people as a ‘basket of deplorables’. She then elaborated: “the racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it. And, unfortunately, there are people like that. And he has lifted them up”. Now certainly there are people like that. And Trump has indeed lifted them up. But such generalized disdain positioned Hilary as other, as condescending and hostile to a much broader population.

What made these comments all the more corrosive is that they chimed with people’s wider experience of being ignored and excluded – the political system is notoriously unresponsive to the voice and interests of all but the powerful.
And such a stance is not unique to the political system. Much of academia treats ordinary people as incapable of making sound decisions, unable to understand risk or probability, and hence in need of a technocratic elite to guide them. Little surprise, then, that many people have come to question the claims to objectivity and impartiality upon which our expert judgements rely.

The skill of Trump and his ilk was to recognize and speak to this widespread experience of exclusion. He explicitly acknowledged those who feel ignored, who are losing out and who, still worse, fear losing their place and status in society. It may be that the way he explained this loss (as resulting from an external enemy aided and abetted by a liberal elite) was toxic and that his solutions (building walls and draining swamps) were illusory. But at least he took notice that such people existed.

Trump also demonstrated skill in positioning himself as the voice of this population. He too was someone outside the system, someone derided by the system and someone whose supposed gaffes (and his reaction to them) actually served to reinforce his outsider credentials. Sure, he was rich but this did not set him apart from his electorate but rather showed him, rightly or wrongly, to embody their dreams – the American dream of a self-made man.

What is more, Trump’s wealth allowed him to argue that he was not only of the American people, but he would work for the American people (unlike his opponents who were in hock to the money men) and had the skills to advance the interests of the American people (unlike his opponents who had no talent in the art of the deal).

Finally, Trump was skillful in drawing people in to participate – literally – in making his worldview real. Trump rallies were critical to his success. They are akin to medieval morality plays in which the crowd, as America, slays its enemies: both the enemy without (as represented by protestors who are rough-handled and ejected) and the enemy within (the ‘liberal media’ who are heckled and humiliated). Under Trump’s orchestration, this American audience is truly great again, able to silence and defeat those by whom they feel to be silenced and defeated in everyday life.

It is by distrusting the people that we have created the space for the likes of Trump to triumph. And the likes of Trump will only be defeated when we too speak to the experience of the excluded, offer more satisfactory explanations of their plight and more viable solutions.

If I have learnt anything from studying social behavior over some four decades, it is that you will never change people by telling them that what they are doing is wrong. You will only achieve change by changing what you do yourself. We need to understand that the growth of Trumpism and its like stems more from our failures than those of Trump supporters. And if we want to change that, we could do no better than to start to trust the people.

Professor Stephen Reicher is a Fellow of the British Academy and Professor of Psychology at the University of St Andrews. He will give the Joint British Academy/British Psychological Annual Lecture on the psychology of authoritarian populist leaders on 14 September 2017.

Watch the video of Professor Reicher’s lecture ‘Trust the people! On the psychology of authoritarian populism’.

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