Donald Trump’s rise to the top is considered thrilling or revolting, depending on whom you ask. Nonetheless, it’s clear that Trump is, without question, a master pitchman and a political genius. But, what experts say are his secret weapons are less political than they are psychological. As it turns out, what Trump has in common with Hitler may be less important in this election than what he has has in common with Kanye West.
First off, it’s important to recognize who Trump’s supporters really are — and they’re not who you think they might be. Matthew MacWilliams, a Ph.D. student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, identified and classified Trump supporters in his dissertation. His research found something remarkable. The single best variable to identify a Trump supporter isn’t political affiliation, race, religion, gender or hundreds of other variables — it’s authoritarianism. Authoritarianism predicts support for Trump better than virtually any other indicator. What does authoritarianism mean? In short, it means wanting to preserve the status quo particularly when threats are perceived. It’s thus no surprise why Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan is so popular with his base. His supporters feel like America is under threat by outsiders.
Barbara Isanski wrote for the Association for Psychological Science: “It’s known that people are more fearful of ‘out-groups’ — that is, people who are different from them.” There is currently a perceived threat from all types of minorities. This means terrorist attacks and ISIS, an influx of immigration, the legalization of same-sex marriage, the inevitability of a minority majority, heightened racial tensions (#BlackLivesMatter) and the incumbency of an African-American president for eight years have likely played a role in provoking authoritarian sentiments across all religious, racial and political cohorts.
Elizabeth Suhay, a professor at American University, found in 2011 that when non-authoritarians feel sufficiently scared, they also start to behave, politically, like authoritarians. Moderates and Democrats vote for Trump too, she said. Mark McKinnon, a political strategist for both Republicans and Democrats, said in a New York Times interview: “Elections are about two things: fear or hope … to win an election you need to appeal to one of the two … but fear usually works better.” This brings us to another trick up Trump’s sleeve: pessimism. Our psychology is tailored to listen to pessimism more than optimism. John Stuart Mill noticed this over 150 years ago when he wrote: “I have observed that not the man who hopes when others despair, but the man who despairs when others hope, is admired by a large class of persons as a sage.” Pessimism is intellectually captivating. That’s why the media reports on airplane-crashes and the rising cost of oil rather than about how great our economy is doing. It’s also why Donald Trump gets more media-time than any other candidate.
In a study published by Harvard professor Teresa Amiable in the Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology, individuals writing negative book reviews were seen as smarter and more competent than those who wrote positive book reviews even when “the content of the positive review was independently judged as being of higher quality.” The point is: Pessimism sounds smart and we pay attention to it. Not coincidentally, Trump has no shortage of pessimism.
Psychologically speaking, Trump also has plenty of ammo. For instance, he speaks in simple responses — ridiculously simple responses. Cognitively, we dislike confusion. We like short, simple answers, even to complicated problems. When asked about the complexities of the economy, he’ll say, “I’m a businessman. I make deals. Our country is losing to China.” When asked about abortion: “One word. Pro-life. That’s all I’m going to say.” When asked about immigration: “We’re going to build a wall and Mexico’s going to pay for it.” When asked about our military: “We’re going to build the biggest military ever. No one’s going to mess with us.” When asked about what a Trump presidency would look like: “We don’t win anymore. Under Trump, we’re going to win.”
Trump gets criticized by those on both the left and right for not speaking specifically and having plans of no substance. But why risk confusing people if a simple line or two will do?
There’s also the advantage of repetition. Think how many times Trump has said “we don’t win anymore,” “we’re going to Make America Great Again,” “we’re going to build a wall” or just think how often you see his logo. Research has consistently found that the more we are exposed to something, the fonder we grow of it. This is what psychologists call the “mere exposure effect.”For example, simply listening to a song over and over again will cause you to like it more. Similarly, it’s long been realized that a repeated statement is judged more likely to be true. That’s why companies repeat their slogans so frequently. That’s also why Trump sells himself like a product. The more times you hear “We’re going to win with Trump,” the more likely you are to believe it.
On another note, Joe Posner of Vox interviewed supporters at a Trump rally out of pure curiosity. One supporter said: “We want our country back.” Another supporter said: “He’s trying to make the country more secure.” Nothing new there. But then another said: “It’d be great to finally have someone with balls.” This last statement reveals Trump’s greatest asset: overconfidence.
According to research, overconfidence increases one’s status even when it’s been exposed as overconfidence. In his book, “The Folly of Fools,” Robert Trivers argues that overconfidence evolved in order to better fool others. The benefits of overconfidence are clear. Cameron Anderson at UC Berkeley found that subjects who overestimated their abilities at group tasks were more respected and influential in the group, regardless of actual ability in 2012. We seem to make a mental shortcut that overconfidence equals competence.
Greater confidence leads to more leadershipbehavior, reduces anxiety and allows for more fluid interaction — all which help make a person appear more socially skilled. Trump has repeatedly said, “If you’re running for president, you should not be allowed to use a teleprompter.” Trump is unscripted. He just speaks out of sheer confidence, and he’s been reaping the benefits.
The surprising thing is that all of these characteristics can easily be replicated by others. Amanda Taub of Vox writes: “Donald Trump could be just the first of many Trumps in American politics.” If that’s true, we’ll be waiting on Kanye to announce his candidacy in 2020. He might actually have a chance.