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Deconstructing the Donald

Credit: Gage Skidmore

Trump’s popularity may result from his ability to appeal to the aggrieved entitlement of angry white men. Credit: Gage Skidmore

By Tim Hannan

Donald Trump’s appeal to voters may be explained by a preference for authoritarian anti-establishment leaders.

To many observers, the success of Donald Trump in the Republican primaries has been bewildering, if not frankly terrifying. While his candidacy has featured vilification of ethnic minorities and immigrants, sexist remarks and aggressive language, it has seemed that these displays have not deterred his supporters.

Attempts by media commentators to explain his popularity have largely focused on the appeal of his policies to specific sectors of the American population. Some psychologists are now speculating that a better explanation lies in examining the impact of his caustic language.

In his 2013 book Angry White Men, the American sociologist Michael Kimmel described the rage of men who perceive themselves to have been dispossessed of their natural right to power and privilege. He argued that this sense of loss has engendered “the cultural construction of aggrieved entitlement”, with these men attributing their personal disadvantage to those they viewed as different – ethnic minorities, immigrants, non-Christians, and those whose preferences are other than heterosexual. According to this theory, Trump’s popularity results from his ability to speak to these angry white men, and to be seen as their champion in the fight against others.

Yet Trump’s nationalistic appeal to white men seems insufficient to account for the breadth of his following. According to exit polls, his supporters are not predominantly men, with some surveys suggesting more than half are women. Nor are his followers all white or of lower socioeconomic levels: surveys have demonstrated that his supporters represent the full demographics of conservative voters. And, of course, Trump is far from the only candidate to exploit nationalistic, arch-conservative sentiments.

Perhaps the dominant feature of Trump’s candidacy is his marked refusal to comply with the usual expectations of conduct for presidential candidates, as exemplified by his willingness to use aggressive and defamatory terms to attack various targets. He has attributed crime to immigrants and specific minorities, saying “the overwhelming amount of violent crime in our major cities is committed by blacks and Hispanics” and “When Mexico sends its people… they’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime, they’re rapists”. Linking Islam to terrorism, he has promised “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” and that “If Obama has brought some to this country, they are leaving, they’re going, they’re gone”.

He has asserted the benefits of aggression, saying of a protester at a rally: “I’d like to punch him in the face,” and declaring “I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters”. His comments on women, especially those in the media, have ranged from the merely demeaning to the blatantly misogynistic.

Given the character and frequency of such remarks, psychologists have speculated that Trump’s unexpected appeal may be engendered by the very outrageousness of his language and behaviour. Two psychological dispositions have been proposed to drive the response of his supporters: anti-establishment preferences and authoritarianism.

In the first case, uncharacteristically extreme behaviour re­inforces the message that a candidate is an outsider and not part of the establishment, which is perceived by some to be working against their interests. Thus, Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” is a promise to reverse those economic, social or other changes that some perceive to be the cause of their personal dissatisfaction.

Secondly, aggressive behaviour and language appeals to authoritarian predispositions among voters. A candidate who presents as dominant, successful and unyielding is perceived as a strong leader able to wage a battle for them against their identified opposition.

The American psychologist Jay Frankel describes this as a case of “identifying with the aggressor”: when people feel insecure, whether due to fears of terrorism, economic threats or social changes, they seek strength. Candidates can exploit this disposition by exaggerating the threat, and presenting themselves as the champion of “traditional American values”.

Trump’s success in the majority of the Republican primaries demonstrates that vulgar and aggressive language and behaviour may be seen as a strength by voters, especially those feeling aggrieved at a perceived loss of entitlement or privilege.

Whether this discovery influences campaigning in future Australian and New Zealand elections will be of interest. While the odd conservative shock jock who has called Middle Eastern males “vermin” and asserted that “women are destroying the joint” may retain a healthy radio audience, we have not seen mainstream political candidates display such a marked refusal to follow accepted rules of conduct. At least, not yet.

A/Prof Tim Hannan is Head of the School of Psychology at Charles Sturt University, and the Past President of the Australian Psychological Society.