Whether we want to or not, for the sake of America, we must try to understand the Donald Trump phenomenon, as it has completely swept the nation and also fiercely divided it. What is most baffling about it all is Trump’s apparent political invincibility. As he himself said even before he won the presidential election, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Unfortunately for the American people, this wild-sounding claim appears to be truer than not, at least for the majority of his supporters, and that is something that should disturb us. It should also motivate us to explore the science underlying such peculiar human behavior, so we can learn from it, and potentially inoculate against it.
In all fairness, we should recognize that lying is sadly not uncommon for politicians on both sides of the political aisle, but the frequency and magnitude of the current president’s lies should have us all wondering why they haven’t destroyed his political career, and instead perhaps strengthened it. Similarly, we should be asking why his inflammatory rhetoric and numerous scandals haven’t sunk him. We are talking about a man who was caught on tape saying, “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab them by the pussy.” Politically surviving that video is not normal, or anything close to it, and we can be sure that such a revelation would have been the end of Barack Obama or George Bush had it surfaced weeks before the election.
Some of the explanations come from a 2017 review paper published in the Journal of Social and Political Psychology by the psychologist and UC Santa Cruz professor Thomas Pettigrew. Others have been put forth as far back as 2016 by myself, a cognitive neuroscience and psychology researcher, in various articles and blog posts for publications like Psychology Today. A number of these were inspired by insights from psychologists like Sheldon Solomon, who laid the groundwork for the influential Terror Management Theory, and David Dunning, who did the same for the Dunning-Kruger effect
This list will begin with the more benign reasons for Trump’s intransigent support, and as the list goes on, the explanations become increasingly worrisome, and toward the end, border on the pathological. It should be strongly emphasized that not all Trump supporters are racist, mentally vulnerable, or fundamentally bad people. It can be detrimental to society when those with degrees and platforms try to demonize their political opponents or paint them as mentally ill when they are not. That being said, it is just as harmful to pretend that there are not clear psychological and neural factors that underlie much of Trump supporters’ unbridled allegiance.
The psychological phenomena described below mostly pertain to those supporters who would follow Trump off a cliff. These are the people who will stand by his side no matter what scandals come to light, or what sort of evidence for immoral and illegal behavior surfaces.
- Practicality Trumps Morality
For some wealthy people, it’s simply a financial matter. Trump offers tax cuts for the rich and wants to do away with government regulation that gets in the way of businessmen making money, even when that regulation exists for the purpose of protecting the environment. Others, like blue-collared workers, like the fact that the president is trying to bring jobs back to America from places like China. Some people who genuinely are not racist (those who are will be discussed later) simply want stronger immigration laws because they know that a country with open borders is not sustainable. These people have put their practical concerns above their moral ones. To them, it does not matter if he’s a vagina-grabber, or if his campaign team colluded with Russia to help him defeat his political opponent. It is unknown whether these people are eternally bound to Trump in the way others are, but we may soon find out if the Mueller investigation is allowed to come to completion.
- The Brain’s Attention System Is More Strongly Engaged by Trump
According to a study that monitored brain activity while participants watched 40 minutes of political ads and debate clips from the presidential candidates, Donald Trump is unique in his ability to keep the brain engaged. While Hillary Clinton could only hold attention for so long, Trump kept both attention and emotional arousal high throughout the viewing session. This pattern of activity was seen even when Trump made remarks that individuals didn’t necessarily agree with. His showmanship and simple language clearly resonate with some at a visceral level.
- America’s Obsession with Entertainment and Celebrities
Essentially, the loyalty of Trump supporters may in part be explained by America’s addiction with entertainment and reality TV. To some, it doesn’t matter what Trump actually says because he’s so amusing to watch. With the Donald, you are always left wondering what outrageous thing he is going to say or do next. He keeps us on the edge of our seat, and for that reason, some Trump supporters will forgive anything he says. They are happy as long as they are kept entertained.
- “Some Men Just Want to Watch the World Burn.”
Some intelligent people who know better are supporting Trump simply to be rebellious or to introduce chaos into the political system. They may have such distaste for the establishment and democrats like Hillary Clinton that their support for Trump is a symbolic middle finger directed at Washington. These people do not have their priorities straight, and perhaps have other issues, like an innate desire to troll others, or a deranged obsession with schadenfreude.
- The Fear-Factor: Conservatives Are More Sensitive to Threat
Science has unequivocally shown that the conservative brain has an exaggerated fear response when faced with stimuli that may be perceived as threatening. A 2008 study in the journal Science found that conservatives have a stronger physiological reaction to startling noises and graphic images compared to liberals. A brain-imaging study published in Current Biology revealed that those who lean right politically tend to have a larger amygdala — a structure that is electrically active during states of fear and anxiety. And a 2014 fMRI study found that it is possible to predict whether someone is a liberal or conservative simply by looking at their brain activity while they view threatening or disgusting images, such as mutilated bodies. Specifically, the brains of self-identified conservatives generated more activity overall in response to the disturbing images.
These brain responses are automatic, and not influenced by logic or reason. As long as Trump continues his fear mongering by constantly portraying Muslims and Hispanic immigrants as imminent dangers, many conservative brains will involuntarily light up like light bulbs being controlled by a switch. Fear keeps his followers energized and focused on safety. And when you think you’ve found your protector, you become less concerned with offensive and divisive remarks.
- The Power of Mortality Reminders and Perceived Existential Threat
A well-supported theory from social psychology, known as Terror Management Theory, explains why Trump’s fear mongering is doubly effective. The theory is based on the fact that humans have a unique awareness of their own mortality. The inevitably of one’s death creates existential terror and anxiety that is always residing below the surface. In order to manage this terror, humans adopt cultural worldviews — like religions, political ideologies, and national identities — that act as a buffer by instilling life with meaning and value.
Terror Management Theory predicts that when people are reminded of their own mortality, which happens with fear mongering, they will more strongly defend those who share their worldviews and national or ethnic identity, and act out more aggressively towards those who do not. Hundreds of studies have confirmed this hypothesis, and some have specifically shown that triggering thoughts of death tends to shift people towards the right.
Not only do death reminders increase nationalism, they influence actual voting habits in favor of more conservative presidential candidates. And more disturbingly, in a study with American students, scientists found that making mortality salient increased support for extreme military interventions by American forces that could kill thousands of civilians overseas. Interestingly, the effect was present only in conservatives, which can likely be attributed to their heightened fear response.
By constantly emphasizing existential threat, Trump creates a psychological condition that makes the brain respond positively rather than negatively to bigoted statements and divisive rhetoric. Liberals and Independents who have been puzzled over why Trump hasn’t lost supporters after such highly offensive comments need look no further than Terror Management Theory.
- The Dunning-Kruger Effect: Humans Often Overestimate Their Political Expertise
Some support Donald Trump do so out of ignorance — basically they are under-informed or misinformed about the issues at hand. When Trump tells them that crime is skyrocketing in the United States, or that the economy is the worst it’s ever been, they simply take his word for it.
The Dunning-Kruger effect explains that the problem isn’t just that they are misinformed; it’s that they are completely unaware that they are misinformed, which creates a double burden.
Studies have shown that people who lack expertise in some area of knowledge often have a cognitive bias that prevents them from realizing that they lack expertise. As psychologist David Dunning puts it in an op-ed for Politico, “The 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 the task. This includes political judgment.” These people cannot be reached because they mistakenly believe they are the ones who should be reaching others.
- Relative Deprivation — A Misguided Sense of Entitlement
Relative deprivation refers to the experience of being deprived of something to which one believes they are entitled. It is the discontent felt when one compares their position in life to others who they feel are equal or inferior but have unfairly had more success than them.
Common explanations for Trump’s popularity among non-bigoted voters involve economics. There is no doubt that some Trump supporters are simply angry that American jobs are being lost to Mexico and China, which is certainly understandable, although these loyalists often ignore the fact that some of these careers are actually being lost due to the accelerating pace of automation.
These Trump supporters are experiencing relative deprivation, and are common among the swing states like Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. This kind of deprivation is specifically referred to as “relative,” as opposed to “absolute,” because the feeling is often based on a skewed perception of what one is entitled to.
- Lack of Exposure to Dissimilar Others
Intergroup contact refers to contact with members of groups that are outside one’s own, which has been experimentally shown to reduce prejudice. As such, it’s important to note that there is growing evidence that Trump’s white supporters have experienced significantly less contact with minorities than other Americans. For example, a 2016 study found that “…the racial and ethnic isolation of Whites at the zip-code level is one of the strongest predictors of Trump support.” This correlation persisted while controlling for dozens of other variables. In agreement with this finding, the same researchers found that support for Trump increased with the voters’ physical distance from the Mexican border. These racial biases might be more implicit than explicit, the latter which is addressed in #14.
- Trump’s Conspiracy Theories Target the Mentally Vulnerable
While the conspiracy theory crowd — who predominantly support Donald Trump and crackpot allies like Alex Jones and the shadowy QAnon — may appear to just be an odd quirk of modern society, the truth is that many of them suffer from psychological illnesses that involve paranoia and delusions, such as schizophrenia, or are at least vulnerable to them, like those with schizotypy personalities.
The link between schizotypy and belief in conspiracy theories is well-established, and a recent study published in the journal Psychiatry Research has demonstrated that it is still very prevalent in the population. The researchers found that those who were more likely to believe in outlandish conspiracy theories, such as the idea that the U.S. government created the AIDs epidemic, consistently scored high on measures of “odd beliefs and magical thinking.” One feature of magical thinking is a tendency to make connections between things that are actually unrelated in reality.
Donald Trump and his media allies target these people directly. All one has to do is visit alt-right websites and discussion boards to see the evidence for such manipulation.
- Trump Taps into the Nation’s Collective Narcissism
Collective narcissism is an unrealistic shared belief in the greatness of one’s national group. It often occurs 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 psychological phenomenon is related to relative deprivation (#6).
A study published last year in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found a direct link between national collective narcissism and support for Donald Trump. This correlation was discovered by researchers at the University of Warsaw, who surveyed over 400 Americans with a series of questionnaires about political and social beliefs. Where individual narcissism causes aggressiveness toward other individuals, collective narcissism involves negative attitudes and aggression toward ‘outsider’ groups (outgroups), who are perceived as threats.
Donald Trump exacerbates collective narcissism with his anti-immigrant, anti-elitist, and strongly nationalistic rhetoric. By referring 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.
- The Desire to Want to Dominate Others
Social dominance orientation (SDO) — which is distinct but related to authoritarian personality syndrome (#13) — refers to people who have a preference for the societal hierarchy of groups, specifically with a structure in which the high-status groups have dominance over the low-status ones. Those with SDO are typically dominant, tough-minded, and driven by self-interest.
In Trump’s speeches, he appeals to those with SDO by repeatedly making a clear distinction between groups that have a generally higher status in society (White), and those groups that are typically thought of as belonging to a lower status (immigrants and minorities). A 2016 survey study of 406 American adults published last year in the journal Personality and Individual Differences found that those who scored high on both SDO and authoritarianism were those who intended to vote for Trump in the election.
- Authoritarian Personality Syndrome
Authoritarianism refers to the advocacy or enforcement of strict obedience to authority at the expense of personal freedom, and is commonly associated with a lack of concern for the opinions or needs of others. Authoritarian personality syndrome — a well-studied and globally-prevalent condition — is a state of mind that is characterized by belief in total and complete obedience to one’s authority. Those with the syndrome often display aggression toward outgroup members, submissiveness to authority, resistance to new experiences, and a rigid hierarchical view of society. The syndrome is often triggered by fear, making it easy for leaders who exaggerate threat or fear monger to gain their allegiance.
Although authoritarian personality is found among liberals, it is more common among the right-wing around the world. President Trump’s speeches, which are laced with absolutist terms like “losers” and “complete disasters,” are naturally appealing to those with the syndrome.
While research showed that Republican voters in the U.S. scored higher than Democrats on measures of authoritarianism before Trump emerged on the political scene, a 2016 Politico survey found that high authoritarians greatly favored then-candidate Trump, which led to a correct prediction that he would win the election, despite the polls saying otherwise
- Racism and Bigotry
It would be grossly unfair and inaccurate to say that every one of Trump’s supporters have prejudice against ethnic and religious minorities, but it would be equally inaccurate to say that many do not. It is a well-known fact that the Republican party, going at least as far back to Richard Nixon’s “southern strategy,” used tactics that appealed to bigotry, such as lacing speeches with “dog whistles” — code words that signaled prejudice toward minorities that were designed to be heard by racists but no one else.
While the dog whistles of the past were subtler, Trump’s signaling is sometimes shockingly direct. There’s no denying that he routinely appeals to racist and bigoted supporters when he calls Muslims “dangerous” and Mexican immigrants “rapists” and “murderers,” often in a blanketed fashion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a recent study has shown that support for Trump is correlated with a standard scale of modern racism.
Bobby Azarian is a neuroscientist affiliated with George Mason University and a freelance journalist. His research has been published in journals such as Cognition & Emotion and Human Brain Mapping, and he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, Psychology Today, and Scientific American. Follow him on Twitter @BobbyAzarian.