A study published this month in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science contributes a powerful new idea to the understanding of the psychological phenomenon that is the rise of Donald Trump. By surveying over 400 Americans with a battery of questionnaires about political and social beliefs, researchers at the University of Warsaw found support for Trump to be linked to something called “national collective narcissism” — an unrealistic shared belief in the greatness of the national group. Where individual narcissism predicts interpersonal aggressiveness, collective narcissism predicts negative attitudes and aggression toward perceived ‘outsider’ groups (outgroups), who are perceived as threats.
Collective narcissism is created when a group who believes it represents the ‘true identity’ of a nation — the ‘ingroup,’ in this case White Americans — perceives itself as being disadvantaged compared to outgroups who are getting ahead of them ‘unrightfully.’ This is known as “group relative deprivation,” which was also found to be associated with support for Trump.
Donald Trump is able to manufacture collective narcissism almost out of thin air by creating or promoting perceived ingroup disadvantages with his anti-immigrant, anti-elitist, and strongly nationalistic rhetoric. By speaking to his supporters, an overwhelmingly white group, as being “true patriots” or “real Americans,” he promotes a brand of populism that is the epitome of “identity politics,” a term that is usually associated with the political left. Left-wing identity politics, as misguided as they may sometimes be, are generally aimed at achieving equality, while the right-wing brand is based on a belief that one nationality and race is superior or entitled to success and wealth for no other reason than identity.
It will not be easy to reverse the biases and division created by the collective narcissism associated with Trump’s reign. In the short term, we can raise our awareness of this exploitative psychological technique commonly used by politicians who invent narratives of perceived ingroup disadvantages. In the long term, society as a whole will need to make a conscious effort to redefine being American as something that is entirely independent of race or religion. When we can begin to see all human beings as members of a single group that are all in this together, the nation will see unparalleled progress.
Bobby Azarian is a science writer with a PhD in neuroscience. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The Atlantic, The New York Times, BBC Future, Scientific American, and others. Follow him on twitter @BobbyAzarian.