Conservative Psychology and the Appeal of Donald Trump

Conservative Psychology and the Appeal of Donald Trump January 7, 2016
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Thomas Edsall asked a group of experts on social psychology to weigh in on the secret of Donald Trump’s appeal and they’re pretty much unanimous in pointing to the studies on the psychology of political conservatives that show those on the right are highly reactive to disgust and perceived external threats, crave purity in every sense, and seek out authoritarian leaders. Jonathan Haidt:

Many American voters, Haidt wrote,

perceive that the moral order is falling apart, the country is losing its coherence and cohesiveness, diversity is rising, and our leadership seems to be suspect or not up to the needs of the hour. It’s as though a button is pushed on their forehead that says “in case of moral threat, lock down the borders, kick out those who are different, and punish those who are morally deviant.”

Haidt, a professor at N.Y.U.’s Stern School of Business, argues that Trump

is not a conservative, and is not appealing to classical conservative ideas. He is an authoritarian, who is profiting from the chaos in Washington, Syria, Paris, San Bernardino, and even the chaos on campuses, which are creating a more authoritarian electorate in the Republican primaries.

In other words, the segment of the electorate drawn to Trump is especially receptive to mobilization at times of perceived disorder — of a belief in looming external threats, from the Islamic State to Syrian refugees to illegal immigration from Latin America.

Psychologist Jesse Graham:

Jesse Graham, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, elaborated on the purity-disgust dimension of this year’s political campaign:

More than any other Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump has been appealing to a particular combination of in-group loyalty and moral purity concerns. On the purity side, he often expresses disgust, often toward women and women’s bodies (e.g., Clinton’s bathroom break during a Democratic debate). But his purity appeals are most commonly in the context of group boundaries, like building walls on our national borders to prevent contamination by outsiders, who are cast as murderers and rapists, both morally and physically dirty.

These themes, in Graham’s view, have laid the groundwork for Trump’s popularity with explicitly racist and fascist groups:

The National Alliance and National Vanguard spawned The Turner Diaries, which imagined a dystopian future where America is ruled by lazy and corrupt Jews and Blacks, until a morally pure white resistance group nukes the Pentagon. Trump of course is not advocating anything like these horrors, but the moral intuitions he’s playing on can lead in this direction if unrestrained by other moral concerns, such as injustice and the suffering of out-group members.

According to Graham, Trump’s personal style attracts voters, including current and former Democrats, who are drawn to authoritarian leaders:

Trump is more domineering than the other candidates, bullying opponents and reporters alike, calling them losers, refusing to ever apologize for anything. This could indeed appeal to those high in social-dominance orientation and authoritarianism, particularly those who mistake such domineering for actual authority.

All of this has seemed intuitively obvious from the very start and I’ve noted some of those things in a far less scholarly fashion many times. It also explains why what the rational among us perceive as shocking gaffes haven’t hurt his popularity one bit, because his supporters mistake his bullying and crude nature as proof that he’s a real leader.

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