Regardless of your perspective on whether Trump should be the next president of the United States; I think everyone can agree he is a phenomenon which has far exceeded the expectation and predictions of the news stations, pundits, political commentators and bloggers.
But what surprises me the most about Trump’s candidacy is how silent psychologists have been about the rise of Trump (except these articles), beyond the pieces claiming him to be a narcissist. The fact of the matter is this: Trump’s campaign is Psychology 101 on how to win, influence and manipulate people. I want to be clear, I am not using the word manipulate as a negative, merely as a term to describe his ability to influence people’s perceptions of reality.
Indeed, in this article I will not give my opinion of Trump, I will neither condone nor condemn him, what I am going to do is break down the psychological tools employed (either purposefully, or not) by the Trump campaign, which psychologists know have a great influence on individuals and society as a whole.
The question of whether Trump is intentionally designing and masterminding a campaign using every psychological trick in the book is a question that I cannot answer. That would require a battery of psychological tests, an in depth interview, and a read of his autobiography. Even then, any findings would probably be at best, speculative. The reason for that is simple: Due to the very nature of modern day politics, it is unclear whether Trump is putting on a façade, or showing his true self. Again, I am certain people from both sides of the political spectrum, or who know him personally, will have strong opinion on that, but it’s not something I can answer honestly. Anyway, here are 9 psychological techniques employed by Trump’s campaign:
An existential threat.
If you remind people of their mortality, they will show support for those that not only share their beliefs, but also increase their hostility towards groups that are perceived to be an affront to those beliefs. This is known as terror management, and this article by John Horgan, interviewing Psychologist Sheldon Solomon will give you an excellent oversight to the theory, and its implications. The idea is pretty simple; human beings experience a psychological conflict of embracing the desire to live, whilst accepting death is inevitable. Thus humans will create constructs in order to make sense of this conundrum, by embracing religion, national identity etc., to offer immortality and make sense of life.
How does this apply to Trump? Research has shown here, and here that if you remind Americans of their mortality before asking them to vote, they are more likely to vote for the person they feel will protect them for the existential threat. Trump very skilfully (or perhaps coincidentally) reminds voters of the threat from fundamental Islamic terrorists as a legitimate threat to American lives, citing Paris, San Bernardino and Brussels, before offering to protect Americans by making America ‘great again’ or ‘stronger’ by boosting the economy, the military, and building a wall. The wall is interesting in that it serves as a concrete (perhaps literally) symbol of protecting the masses from death from an existential threat. Although this threat is from illegal immigrants, who Trump has once again targeted as causing harm to Americans, it also serves as a symbol.
You don’t know, what you don’t know.
Ronald Regan once said “If we are to guard against ignorance and remain free, as Jefferson cautioned, it is the responsibility of every American to be informed”. Flash forward 35 years and you have a campaign trail which seemingly exploits this Dunning-Krueger effect, that is to say, people have little insight into the extent of their knowledge.
David Dunning wrote an excellent post about this in Politico, in which he describes how this effect works, and what it means for Trump supporters. He suggests that based on his research, people fail to recognise the gaps in their knowledge and expertise. He argues that:
“knowledge and intelligence that are required to be good at a task are often the same qualities needed to recognize that one is not good at that task—and if one lacks such knowledge and intelligence, one remains ignorant that one is not good at that task. This includes political judgment.” Link here.
It is not difficult to see how someone may have unwavering confidence in their statements and beliefs, if they do not have enough insight into their own knowledge base, or its lack thereof. One could argue this applies to Trump, however instead of making assumptions about Trump’s knowledge base, consider the effects his speech has on the public. Trump has a great deal of confidence and belief in himself, which he radiates to his followers when he is providing, facts figures, and his plan, and it is the Dunning-Krueger Effect on these voters, which is having a great impact. Indeed Dunning argues that voters are not uninformed, they are misinformed, thus their conclusions are misguided, and unwavering, due to their inability to see that the facts are incorrect.
The protective figure
Life is stressful and tough. People have bills, mortgages, job security, relationship and dependents to think about. With all of this responsibility, people are drawn to figures or concepts which take away some of the things they have to do in life, so that they don’t have to think about it. Naturally, this extends to feeling protected. Individuals want a leader who will keep them safe, and will protect them either economically, or militarily. Freud suggested that individuals transfer their desires to be protected from their father figure onto leaders, and instill them with ideals they want them to have. Trump offers to protect America with a bigger military, a wall, and a stronger economy. He keeps his ideas simple and easy to understand, which means they make good bite size news pieces which can be easily repeated, and regurgitated. Humans like to see things in black and white. It makes the world easier to organise, easier to form an opinion, and causes less cognitive dissonance in us as we try to make sense of ourselves, our life experiences and our day to day behaviour. If it is clean cut, it can be put into a nice category, filed away, to be retrieved at a later date to make new decisions. As Hitler once said ‘repeat something often enough, and people will begin to believe it. This is not to draw parallels between Hitler and Trump, merely to make a point that persuading people of something, especially when they are frightened, is easier when you play on emotions such as fear, anger and the desire to be protected. Put this together with people’s desire to see the world in a black and white way, easily boxed into categories and understood, and you have a recipe for persuading millions of people.
Further, when we are discussing the desire to be safe, and to elect someone who will keep you safe, one part of that is how do they stack up to other world leaders? Do you want someone who is politically correct, diplomatic? Or do you want someone who scares the hell out of Russia and China? If people are voting emotionally, from a place of wanting to feel protected, then they may want a leader who is inconsistent and thus unpredictable, aggressive, willing to bluff and has the conviction and confidence to convince the voter that they know what they are doing Indeed, What would be a better protective father figure?
Appealing to the emotional, not the logical.
Hitler wrote about this extensively in Mein Kampf, and was probably influenced greatly by Le Bon, a crowd psychologist. Hitler knew that to sway people opinions: you reduce your talking points to slogan, repeat them often until they become a point of fact, and appeal to individuals’ emotions. Again, this is not to say Trump has parallels to Hitler, but one cannot dismiss how effective Hitler was an persuading and manipulating masses of people, lessons that many a leader have tried to emulate.
In watching American presidential debates, it is clear that many of the surrounding issues are emotional, not logical. When you use abstract terms such as hope, protection, strength etc., you can begin to communicate to people emotionally, and dispense with the cold facts and figures, for the heated emotions of anger, and desire. Primarily, Trump appeals to people’s emotional states of anger, in order to encourage them to favour his stances. Trump does not spend time detailing the logic behind building an extensive wall, or banning Muslims from entering the country, because he knows people don’t respond to that (take the Brexit vote for example). Instead Trump appeals to the emotional vulnerability one feels toward illegal immigrants, terrorism, and frankly, covert prejudice, a legitimate psychologically studied phenomenon. There is plenty of literature to suggest that individuals are covertly prejudice, based in some part by evolutionary mechanisms, and likely cultural discourses, and these decisions play right into that.
Repeat slogans and talking points until they become reality.
Individuals are very easy to manipulate, persuade and convince. We are highly susceptible to advertising, propaganda, but more importantly, the art of persuasion. Forget obedience to authority, our understanding of that concept (based on Milgram’s classical electrical shock study) is changing rapidly. What this boils down to is simple, individuals, based on their upbringing, their environment, the culture in which they live, are susceptible to persuasion. Individuals will change their narrative to make sense of their reality, realty in turn is understood through the lens of that individual, which means this reality is susceptible to change. Donald Trump repeats slogans again and again, to a point where it becomes such a part of cultural discourse, people start to believe it as a truism. For example: ‘I am really, really smart, everyone says so’ draws on repetition, absolute knowledge, and consensus of the majority: ‘People are scared, the economically is failing, we are broke’.
Problem, reaction, solution
From the tyrannical Roman Emperor Diocletian to the fascist dictator Adolf Hitler, Problem, Reaction and Solution has been used many times, and encourages the masses to accept something as if it was the will of the people. It’s pretty simple really, create a problem (the Jews or Christians are a threat to your wellbeing), create a reaction (blow up a building, burn down a palace, and blame it on the outgroups), and propose a solution you had in mind all along, but play it off as a way to protect people from the very threat you created (restrict people’s freedoms, remove their weapons, etc.).
What Trump is doing can be said is a far less sinister version of PRS, which could be considered PRS lite. Now of course unless it is openly acknowledged, any notion that Trump has done or plans to do this is speculative. But this is a hypothetical scenario, based on Trump’s rhetoric. Let’s just assume Trump believes Illegal immigrants from Mexico are a threat to the United States economy, and he believes a physical wall is the best way to ensure protection of this economy. Thus in the proposed PRS, Trump would create a target group for a problem (in this case, a bad economy, which he will blame on the Mexicans), create a reaction (Mexicans are bringing in drugs, stealing jobs etc.) then create a solution, build a wall. Now of course nearly every major political leader will suggest that the porous border between United Stated and Mexico needs to be addressed, and that this problem has existed for decades, so it would be ridiculous to say Trump caused Mexicans to enter the United States with drugs. However, what Trump can do is highlight examples, or distort examples of an event happening (such as drug issues in America), and blame it solely on the Mexicans and their ability to enter the United States.
Humans have evolved over millions of years to the point where we have culture, science, art and the ability to be aware of one’s existence, and our place in the universe. However, in order to survive, and get to this point, humans evolved deeply ingrained instincts such as hording, alertness to potential threats and fear of outgroups. Now this last one is hotly debated in Psychology, are in-group-outgroup the product of society, or the product of evolutionary mechanism for survival? I won’t delve into that here, but let’s just say either way, it has a pronounced effect on our view of the world. If these are deeply ingrained, it means they are difficult to over-ride, and it also means they are easily to exploit. Thus by talking about ‘us’ vs ‘them’, or ‘our way of life’ ‘American values’, it is easy to create target out groups that are stealing these ‘American Ideals’ or even something more concrete such as ‘china are taking our money’. Finally, by talking about terrorism, China, and a ‘decimated’ military in one speech, Trump can instill feelings of panic of an imminent invasion, not just physically, but of cultural beliefs and way of life. People will link them together, and seek patterns in the data given.
Tap into frustration
In Psychology, we know that some people are more in touch with their anger then others, and respond better to messages of action through aggression, fear, and so forth. In the modern world, individuals can be prosecuted for expressing themselves in a way that they feel matches their feelings about the world around them, this is frustrating, and will encourage people to seek out a way to express these feelings, without fear of retribution, or penalisation. Voting for someone who projects your fears, aggressive tendencies, and attempts to dispel the machine to prevent one from expressing themselves (in this case, political correctness), is like having a way to vent. Donald Trump has employed this masterfully. Further, taken together with the already mentioned emotive language, repletion, and playing on people’s emotions instead of rational thinking, it is easy to take a disenfranchised individual from a rural or lower social economic status, and paint a very simple solution to their problem, which you can deliver. As was seen with the Brexit vote, when you ask individuals to vote on something they do not have the required expertise in, you are forced to use propaganda, fear, hate and mud-slinging to attract their vote.
This is a big no-no in academia, and something that has gained traction among news outlets across the globe with regards to the American presidential race. Instead of constructively debating or arguing the issues at hand, an individual will attack the character of their opponent. In this case, you draw attention away from the problem, and onto the person suggesting the problem, which calls into question their character, which when running for President, is a big deal. Donal Trump does this very well, ‘lyin Ted’ is one the news anchors grasped onto and would not let go. This is repeated often enough where Ted Cruz can become synonymous with lying, a characteristic poorly received for a presidential candidate. Likewise, based on Trump’s discourse during his campaign, it can be predicted that when he turns his attention to Hillary, he will employ a similar strategy, probably surrounding the email scandal.
Trumpology- mastermind or serendipity.
Has Trump ingeniously designed an elaborate, evidence based, psychological campaign, using every trick in the book to allow him to influence and persuade the American public to vote for him in 2016? Or is Trump a product of a series of coincidences of people’s frustrations; just the right amount of shrewdness at the right time? In this article I have summed up the Psychology behind Trump’s campaign, which frankly, I am surprised we have not seen sooner in an election, considering the wealth of psychological research available, and the ease in which a charismatic and intelligent person could utilize it. Perhaps we will see a Trump Manifesto in a few years, detailing his rise in prominence in an open and honest account, which I suspect will be right around the time Richard Dawkins confesses to being a closet evangelical.