The Trump Conundrum

As a psychologist the most challenging aspect of the recent presidential election, for me, is understanding why 70 million U.S. citizens voted for Donald Trump. Many have pointed out that this is a man whose communications have the style and content of a soap-box haranguer. He is a person who has demonstrated his readiness to sack anyone who disagrees with him, and has an obvious willingness to lie in the face of clear facts. How can a country that put the first men on the moon (and women in space), that has developed a powerful vaccine against COVID-19 in record time, has more Nobel prize winners than any other country and the majority of leading international universities, give rise to so many people who readily voted for such a man?

There are socio-political explanations relating to many people feeling a political elite has ignored them and general anxieties about how the make-up of the U.S. population is changing in a way they do not like or understand. There are sub-groups of immigrants, as with immigrants throughout history, who want to protect their newfound privileges from the compatriots they have left behind. But as valid as these generic explanations may be there also has to be something at the level of individuals making voting decisions that needs to elucidated.

The viciousness with which Trump supporters express their views when cameras are pointed at them. Their willingness to excuse his totally undiplomatic use of (anti)social media and accept his stance against a pandemic that is so obviously killing tens of thousands of their countrymen and women, does merit the phrase ‘beggars belief’. It may seem patronizing to suggest that these supporters are just ignorant, but even a brief search on Google Scholar provides a great deal of empirical support for Trump’s supporters being people who do not process information or take any notice of evidence. They are typically not open to new ideas but are hard-working and focused. 

I think there is also the powerful process of cognitive dissonance. Once having voted for Trump there is the emotional defense of believing that was the right decision and therefore any facts that contradict that must be false. However, even though these aspects of voters’ cognitions and personalities provide some insight into their continued following of Trump, 70 million is a lot of people to tar with this brush?

In a widely influential attempt to explain how Germany embraced fascism so fully, Adorno and his colleagues proposed the existence of an ‘authoritarian’ personality type. This was based on the Freudian idea that a harsh upbringing led to anger with the parents that was then projected onto others. Such people were highly conventional, submissive to authority, anti-intellectual, superstitious and cynical, among other traits. This perspective has been challenged on many grounds but the ferocity of Trump supporters and their willingness to embrace his claims that the election was rigged, certainly fits this profile.

I don’t know of any research on the child-rearing practices of Trump supporters but it seems unlikely this is the whole explanation for their strange faith in his claims, despite all the evidence to the contrary. It has to be the case that many of his supporters are not interested in evidence. They have an emotional reaction to simple slogans. This is rather like the small but crucial majority of U.K. citizens who voted to separate themselves from their major cultural and economic partners in the European Union. Voting for ‘Brexit’ became a simple decision event though no one quite knew what this bundle of complex negotiations consisted of. Boris Johnson’s ‘Get Brexit Done’ meant no more than ‘Make America Great Again’, or even Hitler’s  “Deutschland wieder großartig machen” — to make Germany great again.

The Victorians were very anxious about the idea of general suffrage and the sort of open democracy that gives every adult the right to vote. Plato thought it was best if philosophers ran the country. Women were not given the vote in many countries for a long time because of the, obviously mistaken, belief that they could not understand politics enough to be able to vote sensibly. All of these views take on board the idea that a vibrant democracy requires a well-educated, well-informed electorate. An electorate that is able to make sense of crucial evidence and come to decisions based on that evidence. It is clear that many countries are failing their citizens with a distorted educational system that provides some with the intellectual training to be able to assess the facts on which to make decisions, but leaves others pray to slogans that feed their anxieties and paranoias.

An American friend of mine (who admittedly lives in Mexico) recently said to me that he thinks it was a big mistake starting in 1776 to give the U.S. its independence. “We’re not ready for it,” he said. “Please take us back.” I’m not sure, though, that we would do any better.

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David Canter

Professor David Canter, the internationally renowned applied social researcher and world-leading crime psychologist, is perhaps most widely known as one of the pioneers of "Offender Profiling" being the first to introduce its use to the UK.

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Benjamin Geer

For a cognitive linguistics version of the parenting argument, George Lakoff’s book Moral Politics is worth considering.

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